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'Will fentanyl be the reason for your next family get-together' posters under fire

British Columbia's chief coroner rebukes undertakers' well-intentioned anti-drug ads.

B.C.-based Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services used this funeral stock image with the caption &quotWill fentanyl be the reason for your next family get-together?" in a fall 2017 drug education campaign that garnered rebuke from B.C.'s Chief Coroner.

Rich Legg/Getty Images

B.C.-based Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services used this funeral stock image with the caption "Will fentanyl be the reason for your next family get-together?" in a fall 2017 drug education campaign that garnered rebuke from B.C.'s Chief Coroner.

Health authorities across British Columbia — and increasingly across the country — are all hands on deck as opioid deaths climb.

But "all hands" doesn't mean that anything goes, even if well-intentioned.

On Saturday, the province's Chief Coroner spoke out about one such effort, by a B.C.-based chain of funeral homes who hoped to make their own contribution to the fight against drug overdose deaths.

"Will fentanyl be the reason for your next family get-together?" reads the poster, one of several "visual aids" that Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services created to educate about the thousands killed annually by opioid overdoses.

On its website, the firm's president Tyrel Burton admitted the materials are "powerful, perhaps even controversial," but that undertakers "felt that we had to do something to reach teens and young adults before they become addicted" after he found his own funeral home serving "four to five families a month who have had a loved one die" from an overdose.

But B.C.'s top coroner, Lisa Lapointe, distanced the province from the campaign, which she said created an impression her coroners were participating — and issued a rare public rebuke of its approach.

"While we acknowledge the importance of public education and awareness, the B.C. Coroners Service does not endorse, and will not be participating in, fear-based initiatives," Lisa Lapointe wrote in a statement Saturday. "Evidence suggests that the reasons for drug use are complex and multifaceted, and programs focused on scaring people from using drugs, are not effective in saving lives.

"Additionally, they tend to increase the stigma surrounding drug use and actually discourage people from seeking help — an obsolete approach that has led to the loss of countless lives."

While the province's health authorities and coroners have doubled down on harm reduction, Burton said that's not his view: "Where the emphasis in those cases is on harm reduction, our focus is on harm prevention," he wrote. "We believe that the answer to the epidemic of fentanyl-caused deaths is prevention … The decision to use drugs doesn’t hurt only the user; it hurts the entire family."

Courtesy Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services / Photo: Rich Legg/Getty Images

However, Lapointe countered with research via B.C.'s Centre on Substance Use, which found that abstinence-based public campaigns — such as the U.S.-based D.A.R.E. and Just Say No campaigns — "showed no evidence of effectiveness," she wrote, and "may have, in fact, prompted some to actually experiment with using substances."

And as for distressing images of funerals, corpses or drug paraphernalia? "Image use needs to be very strategic in awareness campaigns," she added. "… Those with lived experience tell us that images featuring drug paraphernalia can act as a trigger, resulting in the desire to use and causing more harm. We also know that periods of abstinence result in reduced tolerance; putting drug users at higher risk for death."

If you're using drugs, instead of telling people to abstain from addictions or recreational use, B.C. authorities are now prioritizing harm reduction — an approach meant to curb risks to users.

Often associated with drug testing or supervised injection sites, harm reduction can also include safer drug use advice and public education.

"Most of those dying from overdoses are using alone," the B.C. Coroner noted. So the key message of the province's Know Your Source campaign: "Be drug smart. Don’t use alone. Start with a small amount."

Across Canada last year, opioids — synthetic painkillers such as fentanyl and Oxycontin — killed more than 2,800 people, according to Health Canada, one-in-three of them in B.C. Canada is on track to exceed 3,000 deaths this year as the crisis worsens.

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