Drug-related deaths in England and Wales remain at record high

Drugs figures
Drugs figures - (Copyright PA Archive)
12:15pm, Wed 14 Oct 2020
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Drug-related deaths in England and Wales remain at a record level, with official figures showing 2019 had the highest number registered in more than a quarter of a century.

There were 4,393 deaths related to drug poisoning registered last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

This is a small rise from the 4,359 drug-related deaths registered in 2018 – the highest figure since records began in 1993.

Two-thirds of the deaths were related to drug misuse, the ONS said, a small fall from the previous year.

The data shows that the drugs-related death rate of men was twice as high as that of women, with 104.7 deaths registered per million men, compared to 49.1 deaths per million women.

More than half of deaths with a known drug type involved opiates (2,160), while deaths involving cocaine increased for the eighth year in a row, by 7.7% for male deaths and by 26.5% for female deaths.

The data covers deaths registered in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Ben Humberstone, deputy director of health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “The number of deaths due to drug poisoning registered in 2019 remains at a similar level to 2018.

“Almost half of all drug related deaths involved opiates such as heroin and morphine.

“However, cocaine deaths rose for the eighth consecutive year to their highest level.”

The ONS figures cover fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Around half of the deaths registered last year will have happened in previous years, due to the time it can take for an inquest to be completed, statisticians believe.

The death rate in England and Wales reached 76.7 deaths per million people in 2019, up from 46.6 deaths per million in 2012.

Three quarters of the recorded deaths were due to accidental poisoning (3,321), followed by intentional self-poisoning (941 deaths).

The remaining deaths were caused by mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use or assault involving drugs.

The drug-related death rate for women increased for the 10th year in a row, with the death rates involving drug misuse reaching a new high of 27.7 deaths per million.

Men accounted for two-thirds (2,968) of the registered deaths.

The drug-related deaths rate in the North East was almost three times as high as the area with the lowest rate in 2019.

There were 95 deaths per million people in the North East, compared to 33.6 deaths per million people in the East of England.

Rates have been higher in the most deprived areas over the last decade.

The death rates of people in their forties living in the most deprived areas were at least five-and-a-half times higher than those in the least deprived, the ONS said.

Those born in the 1960s and 1970s, known as Generation X, had the highest death rates from drug misuse over time, it added.

Death rates involving new psychoactive substances have remained stable, with 125 deaths registered in 2019, as have deaths involving fentanyl (59).

Professor Julia Sinclair, chairwoman of the Addictions Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said drug-related deaths are preventable but years of cuts have left services ill-equipped and under-resourced.

She said: “Loss of addiction psychiatry expertise through lack of training places and community services often being split from the NHS are only making things worse, with patients with multiple health needs no longer getting joined-up care.

“The tragic number of drug-related deaths should be all the evidence the Government needs to substantially invest in addiction services, before more lives are needlessly lost.”

Laura Bunt, deputy chief executive at the charity We Are With You, said: “Issues such as rising homelessness, poor mental health and a lack of economic opportunities in some areas all lead to people using drugs.

“It’s therefore no surprise that drug-related deaths are highest in the UK’s most deprived areas, with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis likely to exacerbate many of these issues.

“For people already facing issues with drugs, alcohol and mental health, these may intensify over the coming months.”

James Nicholls, chief executive of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, added: “After seven years of record deaths, the Government must focus on keeping people alive.

“Current policy is not protecting people or our communities, and is actively blocking measures we know can reduce deaths.”

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