Harm reduction focuses on identifying and targeting specific risks that arise from alcohol and other drug use. This may include risks to the individual, as well as their family and friends (DoH 2017).
Minimising risky behaviours
Examples of programs that aim to minimise risky behaviours include:
- Needle and syringe programs (NSPs) are designed to reduce the sharing of injecting equipment through the provision of sterile needles and syringes to people who inject drugs. NSPs are a cost-effective measure that have successfully prevented the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C infection. NSPs also provide counselling services and actively encourage clients into drug treatment programs (Wodak and Cooney. 2004).
- Supervised drug consumption facilities/rooms and medically supervised injecting centres (MSIC) are places where people can use and inject drugs under the supervision of registered nurses, counsellors and health education professionals. MSIC services aim to prevent injury and death by being present when someone injects in order to provide immediate medical assistance as required. Kings Cross in Sydney has been home to a MSIC since 2001 (Uniting 2017) and a second opened in Richmond, Victoria, in July 2018.
- Drug checking, also known as pill testing, is a harm reduction service that allows people who are thinking about using drugs to test their pills/drugs at designated sites. The test informs them of the purity of the drug, as well as the substances it contains (ACT Health 2023). The ACT is currently piloting a fixed-site health and drug checking service and Queensland has announced intentions to introduce mobile and fixed-site pill testing.
- Data from the CanTEST Program Evaluation - Final report (July 2022 to January 2023) show that:
- Of the 498 service users visiting the site:
- 80% were from the ACT
- 70% identified as ‘man or male’
- 39% were aged 24 or under
- 53% of test results contained the expected drug.
- Upon receiving test results, 10% of drugs were discarded at the service.
- 66% of service users accepted AOD and/or general health intervention.
- The site facilitated access to naloxone for 61 service users (Olsent et al. 2023).
- Of the 498 service users visiting the site:
- Smoke-free laws exist in Australia to protect people from harmful second-hand tobacco smoke. This includes banning smoking in all enclosed public spaces and certain outdoor public areas, such as children’s play areas, sport grounds and transport hubs.
- Drink and drug driving laws are enforced across Australia to deter people from operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and or drugs and prevent deaths and significant injuries on the road. It is a criminal offence for drivers with a learner or probationary licence to have a blood alcohol concentration above zero and for full licence holders to have a blood alcohol concentration above 0.05 grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. Any presence of an illicit substance is also a criminal offence for drivers, regardless of the type of licence held.
- Take-home naloxone programsenable those people at risk of opioid overdose or adverse reaction, and their friends and family members to access naloxone at community and hospital-based pharmacies, alcohol and drug treatment centres and needle and syringe programs. Given in a timely manner, naloxone can reverse the effects of opioid overdose (DoH 2021).
- Opioid overdose represents a significant and ongoing problem for Australia’s public health. Naloxone is a medication that reverses the effects of opioids and is an important means of responding to the harms associated with opioid overdose (including death) (Penington Institute 2018).
- The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) reported that, in 2022, 84% of participants had heard of naloxone. Two-thirds (66%) of participants had heard of take-home naloxone programs, and almost 2 in 5 (38%) had been trained in naloxone administration. In 2022, around 1 in 4 (24%) respondents who had heard of naloxone reported that they had used naloxone to resuscitate someone in their lifetime (Sutherland et al. 2022).
- Due to COVID-19 restrictions being imposed in various jurisdictions during data collection periods, interviews in 2020, 2021 and 2022 were delivered face-to-face as well as via telephone. This change in methodology should be considered when comparing data from the 2020, 2021 and 2022 samples relative to previous years.
- The IDRS Trends in self-reported past year non-fatal overdose and responses to overdose found that:
- In 2020, among those who reported overdosing on heroin in the past year, the most common treatment received on the occasion of the last overdose was the administration of Narcan/naloxone.
- Between 2009 and 2020, Narcan/naloxone and ambulance attendance were the 2 most common forms of treatment for heroin overdose (Thomas et al. 2021).
Community support for harm reduction measures
In 2019, the NDSHS included two new questions about support for drug testing at designated sites (that is, pill testing) and supervised drug consumption facilities/ rooms. These measures were generally well supported, with more people supporting pill testing than drug consumption rooms. Support for both measures was highest among younger people and people who had used drugs in the past 12 months (AIHW 2020).
Australia’s attitude and perceptions towards drugs by region, 2019 report showed that almost 3 in 5 people (57%) supported pill testing at designated sites (AIHW 2022).
Almost 3 in 5 (57%) Australians aged 14 and over supported pill testing and 27% opposed it. Over three-quarters (78%) of people who had recently used drugs supported pill testing, compared with 47% of those who had never used drugs. Over 3 in 5 (61%) people aged 14–39 supported this measure, compared with 53% of people in the age groups from 40 and over. Support for pill testing varied according to demographic factors.
- Support was highest in Major cities (59%) and decreased with increased remoteness (48% in Remote and very remote areas).
- Support was highest in the most advantaged socio-economic area (66%) and lowest in the most disadvantaged area (51%).
- Support was highest among people with a bachelor degree or higher (66%), and lowest among people who had completed year 11 or less (47%) (AIHW 2020).
Supervised drug consumption rooms
Just under half (47%) of Australians supported supervised drug consumption rooms and 32% opposed them. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of people who had recently used drugs supported this measure, compared with 39% of people who had never used drugs. Half (50%) of people in the age groups between 14 and 39 supported this measure, compared with 44% of people in the age groups from 40 and over. Support also varied by demographic factors.
- Support was highest among people in Major cities (49%) and decreased with increased remoteness (40% in Remote and very remote areas).
- Support was highest among people in the most advantaged socio-economic area (56%) and lowest among people in the most disadvantaged area (41%).
- Support was highest among people with a bachelor degree or higher (57%) and lowest among people who had completed year 11 or less (36%) (AIHW 2020).
ACT Health (2023) Pill testing, ACT Health website, accessed 5 April 2023.
AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2020. National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019. Drug statistics series no. 32. Cat. no. PHE 270. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 21 July 2020.
AIHW (2022) Australia's attitudes and perceptions towards drugs by region, 2019. Canberra AIHW, accessed 15 July 2022.
DoH (Department of Health) 2017. National Drug Strategy 2017–2026. Canberra: Australian Government. Viewed 12 January 2018.
DoH 2021. About the take home naloxone program. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Viewed 10 January 2023.
Olsen A, Baillie G, Bruno R, McDonald D, Hammoud M, Peacock A (2023). CanTEST Health and Drug Checking Service Program Evaluation: Final Report. Australian National University: Canberra, ACT.
Penington Institute (2018). Saving Lives: Australian naloxone access model (PDF). Melbourne: Penington Institute. Viewed 16 April 2020.
Sutherland R, Uporova J, King C, Jones F, Karlsson A, Gibbs D, Price O, Bruno R, Dietze P, Lenton S, Salom C, Daly C, Thomas N, Juckel J, Agramunt S, Wilson Y, Que Noy W, Wilson J, Degenhardt L, Farrell M and Peacock A. 2022. Australian Drug Trends 2022: Key Findings from the National Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) Interviews. Sydney: National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Viewed 13 October 2022.
Thomas N, Juckel J, Daly C, Maravilla J, & Salom C R 2021. Trends in self-reported past year non-fatal overdose and responses to overdose: Findings from the Illicit Drug Reporting System. Sydney. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW.
Uniting 2017. Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre: get to know our story. Viewed 25 January 2018.
Wodak A and Cooney A (2004). Effectiveness of sterile needle and syringe programming in reducing HIV/AIDS among injecting drug users. Geneva: World Health Organisation. Viewed 10 January 2023.