The number of heroin-related deaths in England and Wales has doubled since 2012, from 579 to 1,201, according to the latest ONS figures. Last year saw the highest number of drug-related fatalities ever recorded with 3,674 poisoning deaths, of which 2,479 exclusively involved illegal drugs. Scotland also recorded its highest drug death toll in 2015, at 706 (DDN, September, page 4).
Although the government is keen to stress that the figures come against a background of falling rates of overall drug use, deaths involving cocaine also reached an all time high at 320 – up from 247 the previous year. Deaths involving amphetamine also reached their highest-ever level, and those involving ecstasy the highest in more than a decade.
Overall most drug deaths were again among the over-30s, with the North East of England the region recording the highest number of deaths for the third year running, and males almost three times more likely to die than females. Although, as in Scotland, the number of deaths involving NPS remained relatively small, the substances could ‘present a more significant problem in the future, especially as not enough is known about the long term effects of their use’, stressed Public Health England (PHE).
An independent expert group convened by PHE and the Local Government Association (LGA) has published a list of recommendations to try to address the rising death rate, including improving access to treatment – especially for ‘harder to reach’ populations through outreach work and needle and syringe programmes – and coordinating a ‘whole-system approach’ that includes mental health, housing and employment support.
‘Drug use is the fourth most common cause of death for those aged 15 to 49 in England and we know that the majority of those dying from opiates have either never, or not recently, been in treatment,’ said PHE’s director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco, Rosanna O’Connor. ‘Reassuringly, overall drug use has declined and treatment services have helped many people to recover but there is a need for an enhanced effort to ensure the most vulnerable can access treatment.
There is considerable variation across the country, with some regions showing large increases in recent years. PHE will continue to support local authorities in delivering tailored, effective services where people stand the best chance of recovery.’
The ‘shocking’ statistics raised serious concerns about both government policy and the state of the treatment sector, however, said Release executive director Niamh Eastwood. ‘Since 2010 we have seen a worrying implementation of abstinence-based treatment under the government’s ideologically-driven “recovery” agenda. This goes against all the evidence for best practice in drug treatment, and is contributing, we believe, to this shameful rise in deaths. Such a hostile environment means people simply don’t want to access treatment.’
There was also ‘an increasing tendency among local authorities to simply offer treatment contracts to providers who can deliver the service for the lowest cost,’ she continued, with the standard of healthcare ‘being overlooked’ for financial reasons. ‘The Home Office’s pursuit of a “tough on drugs” strategy and refusal to acknowledge the evidence for best practice in drug treatment is quite literally killing people.’
Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2015 registrations at www.ons.gov.uk
Understanding and preventing drug-related deaths: The report of a national expert working group to investigate drug-related deaths in England at www.nta.nhs.uk