The father of Oscar-winning actor Heath Ledger - who died from an accidental medication overdose in 2008 - is coming to New Zealand to campaign against the misuse of prescription drugs.
Ledger, who starred in The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain, was found dead at age 28 in his New York apartment. The city's medical examiner ruled he died of an accidental overdose involving six medicines: oxycodone and another opioid painkiller, an antihistamine sedative, and three benzodiazepines used for anxiety and/or insomnia.
"I came to the understanding," said the actor's father, Kim Ledger, "that what had happened to our child was part of a massive picture, and I felt, and continue to feel strongly, that something absolutely positive needs to come out of this."
Kim Kedger is the patron of Australian group Scriptwise, formed to help prevent prescription medicine misuse by raising awareness of the issue. He will speak at the Cutting Edge Addictions Conference in Rotorua next month.
Kim Ledger told the Daily Mail Australia that his son's death was his own fault. Heath's sister Kate had begged him not to mix sleeping pills with opioids in the hours before he died.
"He said, 'Katie, Katie, I'm fine. I know what I'm doing.' He would have had no idea.
"It was totally his fault. It was no one else's - he reached for them. He put them in his system."
But Ledger also noted the demands of being a top actor would have led his son to take prescription drugs to keep going. And because of his celebrity status, doctors he consulted while travelling would have been inclined to give him what he wanted, instead of what he needed.
His message to the conference will be: "What can start off as a simple prescription can result in medication misuse and people tend to get on to a treadmill that they struggle to get off."
"I want to share my experience to arm other individuals and families with valuable information and knowledge in preventing any misuse of these medications."
Scriptwise says at least three Australians die every day from an overdose and 83 per cent of cases involve prescription medications.
Similar data is not available for New Zealand.
Wellington addictions specialist Dr Jeremy McMinn warned in 2014 that this country's use of oxycodone, a strong opioid similar to morphine, was "a disaster in the making". He noted yesterday that oxycodoneuse was declining but use of other opioids was rising.
"We still have increasing prescribing of morphine and codeine, both of which have a resale value and abuse potential and potential to give Heath Ledger-type overdoses."
Oxycodone was initially thought to be preferable to morphine, but is now known to be even more addictive, according to the Best Practice Journal. New Zealand's oxycodone consumption, although much lower than that of Australia, Britain and the US, rose sharply in the 2000s but has declined since 2011.
Data published yesterday shows it was dispensed to 5.4 of every 1000 people last year, down from 7.3 in 2011 - compared with a big increase to 11 per 1000 for morphine, from 7.5.
Other stars to succumb to prescription medicines include Prince, who died aged 57 in April from an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl.
And in 2009 Michael Jackson died of acute toxicity from propofol, an anaesthetic administered to him by Dr Conrad Murray, who was found guilty of Jackson's involuntary manslaughter. Murray had also administered two anti-anxiety/insomnia medicines, lorazepam and midazolam to Jackson.