More Victorians are dying from overdoses involving prescription drugs than are killed in road accidents, according to the state coroner's office.
According to the coroner's office, 384 deaths were attributed to drugs and alcohol in 2014, up from 342 in 2010. The state's total overdose death toll has risen for the fifth consecutive year, and compares with the 2014 Victorian road toll of 248 people killed.
Coroner Audrey Jamieson presented the newly released figures around the drug death toll at the International Medicine in Addiction Conference in Melbourne on Saturday.
The findings also highlight how prescription drugs in general, and benzodiazepines in particular, consistently contribute to more deaths than either illicit drugs or alcohol.
Prescription drugs were found to have contributed to the deaths in more than 82 per cent of the 384 cases investigated by forensic pathologists. Illicit drugs were found to have contributed to 42 per cent of all fatal overdoses, and alcohol was found to have contributed to nearly one in four deaths, although many overdose deaths involved more than one substance.
Benzodiazepines – including commonly prescribed sedatives for treating anxiety and sleeping pills – are now involved in more than half of all overdoses.
Diazepam contributed to 168 deaths in Victoria last year, making it the largest contributor to overdoses. By contrast, heroin contributed to 135 deaths, alcohol contributed to 93 deaths and methamphetamine contributed to 52 deaths.
Coroner Jamieson told the conference the findings revealed how benzodiazepines were ubiquitous in overdoses involving other drugs, widely misused and highly addictive.
The findings highlight continuing calls from medical professionals and the State Coroner to introduce a real-time register for doctors and pharmacists to monitor prescriptions and to tighten prescription practices around benzodiazepines.
A coroner's office spokeswoman said there had been recommendations to create a real-time monitoring system for prescription drugs in 19 separate inquests.
Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association executive officer Sam Biondo said the hidden death toll from pharmaceutical drugs required urgent attention from both federal and state governments, doctors, pharmacists and the pharmaceutical industry.
"These figures are for Victoria alone. If we consider the national figure of pharmaceutical-related deaths, it is nothing short of a catastrophe."
"There needs to be a national plan to reduce overall deaths, where all the players need to take some action and introduce changes."
This cry was echoed by the Australian Medical Association's Victorian branch.
AMA Victoria president Dr Tony Bartone said a real-time monitoring system for prescriptions such as a searchable database for doctor and pharmacists to see what medications a patient had been prescribed would help to stop prescription drug abuse and overprescription.
"This is a problem that kills more Victorians each year than the road toll, but a simple solution which would go along way to reducing that figure is not enacted … A modest investment in real-time prescription monitoring would go a long way to reducing the number of deaths and [overdoses] because of misadventure and misuse of medication."
Ms Jamieson also told the conference the findings highlighted the need to reclassify the entire class of benzodiazepines from Schedule 4 to Schedule 8, as rescheduling some benzodiazepines but not others had merely shifted usage to those that were easier to prescribe.
While the Napthine government promised nearly $7 million to implement a federally approved prescription monitoring system at the 2014 election, the Andrews government has yet to commit the funding.
A spokeswoman for Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy, Evelyn Ek, said: "The introduction of real-time prescription monitoring requires consideration and planning, following no progress over the past four years under the Liberals."
Ms Ek said the Health Minister had asked the department to provide advice on the necessary steps to implement a system and to make arrangements for Victoria to sign up to federal government software which enables states to monitor use of prescription drugs.
"There are also aspects of real-time prescription monitoring that would benefit from national co-ordination, and the Minister will be raising this with her national and interstate colleagues," she said.