Registrations of deaths relating to poisoning (overdose) in England and Wales have once again broken previous records, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There were 4,359 drug poisoning deaths in 2018, up from 3,756 the previous year (DDN, September 2018, page 4). This represents a ‘statistically significant’ increase of 16 percent, the highest since records began in 1993.
The figures follow the announcement in July of another set of record drug-fatalities north of
the border, at 1,187 – the fifth consecutive Scottish increase and up almost 30 per cent from2017’s figure of 934 (DDN, July/August 2018, page 4). The Scottish Government has since announced an additional £20m funding over two years for the country’s drug services.
Two-thirds of the fatalities in England and Wales were related to drug misuse, with male deaths increasing significantly from 89.6 per million males in 2017 to 105.4 in 2018, while the female rate increased for the ninth consecutive year to 47.5 per million. While more than half of all drug poisonings involved an opiate, deaths involving cocaine have now risen for seven years in a row and almost doubled between 2015 and 2018 – to 637. Fentanyl deaths, however, remained stable at 74.
There were also 125 deaths involving NPS, once again a ‘statistically significant’ increase
from the 61 recorded in 2017 and a return to 2016’s levels, which saw 123. Synthetic
cannabinoids contributed to 60 of the NPS-related deaths, up from 24 in 2017. As in
previous years, the North East reported significantly higher drug-related death rates than all other English regions.
Transform called the deaths ‘an avoidable tragedy’, while Release said government inaction
was a significant contributory factor. ‘For the last seven years we have seen drug-related
deaths increase year on year and every year we have called on the government to take
action, to scale up funding for drug treatment, to support overdose prevention sites, to fund drug checking facilities, and to expand heroin assisted treatment,’ said executive director Niamh Eastwood. ‘Each year they have ignored us.’
‘Drug-related deaths are preventable deaths,’ added Turning Point’s director for public
health and substance misuse, Jay Stewart. ‘Investment in high quality, free to access,
evidence-based treatment services is critical, not only to protect communities from drug-
related crime and anti-social behaviour but to save lives. Nationally, funding has been
reduced by 18 per cent over the past five years and this reduction needs to be reversed.’
While the rate increased across England and Wales there were regional variations, with the North East reporting a significantly higher rate of deaths related to drug misuse than all other English regions, and London reporting the lowest rate.
Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2018 registrations at
Read reactions from the sector
‘People are dying and government inaction is contributing to these deaths. For the last 7 years we have seen drug-related deaths increase year on year and every year we have called on the Government to take action, to scale up funding for drug treatment, to support overdose prevention sites, to fund drug checking facilities, and to expand heroin assisted treatment. Each year they have ignored us, continuing to do the same whilst people die – if the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister continue to ignore these calls then they will continue to be responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year.’
‘Drug related deaths are preventable deaths. Investment in high quality, free to access, evidence-based treatment services is critical, not only to protect communities from drug related crime and anti-social behaviour but to save lives. Nationally, funding has been reduced by 18% over the past 5 years and this reduction needs to be reversed.’ Read the full response here.
It was a tough day for families and people who work in drug treatment. At Addaction we knew and remember many of those who died. It may seem like an impossible crisis, but the vast majority of these deaths are preventable. Four Addaction staff members from across England explore what can be done to bring this spiralling number down. Read it here.
We know that drug-related deaths are linked to age and complicated by health conditions. Poverty, deprivation, homelessness and mental health conditions all increase the chances of a life lost to drugs. That is why we need investment in substance misuse services that support people to improve their physical and mental health. Read the full response here.
‘More than half the deaths where MDMA was mentioned didn’t feature another drug and very few mentioned alcohol. In comparison only 4 of the deaths mentioning Pregabalin didn’t involve another drug, highlighting the risks of mixing this drug especially with opiates.’
These figures continue to reinforce our members’ concerns around the literal state of the nation when it comes to the continual erosion of drug and alcohol treatment services across England and Wales. Read the full response here.
‘We mustn’t forget the catastrophic effects of these unfortunate deaths on the bereaved families, who often suffer overwhelming broader impacts for many years as a result of their loved one’s drug use. Bereavement from a drug-related death raises a unique set of complex emotional and practical problems, including damage to family relationships, feelings of blame and guilt, trauma, physical and mental ill-health, stigma, and shame.’
The most important thing is to maintain investment in OST – we need to follow the evidence. Hear Professor Alex Stevens on the Today programme (starts at 46min).
‘These deaths are an avoidable tragedy – and each one represents a brother, sister, parent or friend who has left loved ones behind. After six years of record deaths, the Government must act, with a clear focus on keeping people alive. Current policy is not protecting people or their communities; instead it is blocking measures we know can save lives, while decimating treatment funding.’ Read the full response here.
‘These harrowing statistics outline the urgent need for investment in frontline services so that deaths can be prevented among users not currently accessing treatment. Reductions in funding must be reversed in order to allow lifesaving interventions which have been significantly reduced in scope, such as user outreach and needle exchanges, to meet demand. Humankind is also calling for the opioid overdose reverser naloxone to be made readily available across England, in line with World Health Organisation and Public Health England recommendations.’
More reaction to come….