Harm Reduction is a public health response to substance use that minimizes death, disease, and injury from drug use by promoting safer drug use practices. However, the media regularly publishes articles about harm reduction in a negative light – we hear controversies about harm reduction services in the political arena, and passionately discuss the topic around the dinner table. But are we, the public, really that spilt in our opinions about harm reduction? A recent public attitudes study found the majority of the public in BC supports harm reduction services.
In December 2013, the BC Centre for Disease Control published a research article on the attitudes of British Columbian’s towards harm reduction strategies and services in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment Prevention and Policy. The study found over three quarters of British Columbians surveyed support harm reduction. Of those surveyed 72% support needle distribution and 65% support needle distribution in their own community. These results are encouraging for those working in harm reduction roles, whose work supports and promotes harm reduction activities in BC, and for those whose lives depend on harm reduction services.
The BC survey found that people who were younger, female and had completed at least a high school education were more likely to support harm reduction. Those who resided in the Fraser Health region were less likely to support harm reduction but even here 69% supported it. Targeting messages towards segments of the population who may have misconceptions about harm reduction may help gain further support for services that improve the health of, and reduce stigma towards, people who use drugs. Messages should inform the public that harm reduction has economic and health benefits and helps individuals, families and communities to be safer and healthier. Studies and experience has repeatedly found harm reduction programs do not promote illegal drug use but, in fact, decrease use and increase access to drug treatment programs. Platforms such as the media, city council meetings, and community forums should be utilized to share this information and bring awareness of the benefits of harm reduction services to all British Columbians.
It is important to note that regardless of some vocal media and local municipality opposition, British Columbians care about people with substance use issues and support harm reduction services. This brings into question why some policies are in place in BC that contradicts the benefits of harm reduction services and the public’s support. Are city councillors being swayed by a vocal minority? Or, are decisions being made for reasons that are not evidence-based? In the light of BC’s recent public attitudes survey, we encourage all policy-makers to re-evaluate their harm reduction policies in order to meet best practice recommendations, save people’s lives, and represent the public’s support for harm reduction services across the province.
Authors: Despina Tzemis (left), Harm Reduction, Health Promoter, and Jane Buxton, Harm Reduction Lead, BC Centre for Disease Control (right)