Highest ever drug death total for England and Wales

There were 4,907 deaths related to drug poisoning recorded in England and Wales last year, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The figure is 1 per cent up on 2021’s total of 4,859 and the highest number since records began 30 years ago. 

DRD ONS Stats 2023The age-standardised mortality rate for deaths related to drug poisoning has risen every year for a decade, says ONS, with the rate of drug-poisoning deaths now more than 80 per cent higher than in 2012 – at 84.4 deaths per million people compared to 46.5 per million. 

At least 3,100 of the 4,907 deaths in 2022 were the result of drug misuse, with the highest rate among 40 to 49-year-olds. Two thirds of the deaths were among men and a third among women, with just under half of all drug-poisoning deaths involving an opiate. The number of deaths involving cocaine, meanwhile, was 2 per cent more than in 2021 and represents the 11th consecutive annual rise.

The most recent treatment statistics from OHID showed a 10 per cent increase in people seeking treatment for cocaine in 2022-23 (https://www.drinkanddrugsnews.com/ten-per-cent-increase-in-people-entering-treatment-for-cocaine/). 

DRD ONS stats breakdown by sexThere has also been an increase in polydrug use, with substances such as benzodiazepines and gabapentinoids increasingly seen alongside opiates. ‘For each year from 1993 to 2011, the average had been either 1.4 or 1.5 drugs per death – for deaths registered in 2022, the average had risen to 2.0 drugs mentioned per death,’ ONS states. As in previous years, the highest death rates for both drug poisoning overall and drug misuse were in the North East. 

The continuing high level of deaths was a ‘tragedy’, said Turning Point’s chief operating officer Clare Taylor. ‘Drug-related deaths are preventable, and the right treatment and support for anyone at risk, in any community, remains the key protective factor.’ While the investment in the wake of the drug strategy had helped to increase the number of treatment places, it would take time to ‘build up the workforce including training additional specialist doctors, nurses, pharmacists and psychologists to deliver world-class drug and alcohol treatment services’, she said, with future funding remaining uncertain.

‘If the government continues to invest in building up skills and capacity in the sector, we can turn the tide. The threat posed by the emergence of cheap, synthetic opioids, that are many times more potent than heroin, means we are facing an uncertain future and therefore the continued investment beyond March 2025 to enable higher quality support to more people is now more important than ever.’

Services and support needed to be ‘more empathetic, easily and immediately accessible, and provided free from stigma’, added WithYou’s interim chief executive Hayley Savage.

‘Cocaine deaths continue to rise and polydrug use is increasing. Nitazenes and other synthetic opioids are also being increasingly identified in drugs like heroin and illicit benzodiazepines. With the majority of drug-related deaths connected to opiates and benzodiazepines, we need to do everything we can to further scale up our access to opioid overdose reversal medicine naloxone as well as increase access to testing of drug samples to avert a worsening of this crisis. It’s vital the political and financial investment for our sector continues over the coming years if we are to reduce the number of drug-related deaths.’

‘Recent increased funding is welcomed, but honestly it is too little too late,’ said Release’s executive director Niamh Eastwood. ‘The figures this year are once again record breaking, and with the arrival of synthetic opioids in the drug supply chain this crisis is set to become catastrophic. This is a public health emergency and we need action now or more needless and preventable deaths will occur.’

The Salvation Army also issued a call for a government-funded naloxone programme for England, with all frontline police trained and equipped to administer and distribute it and take-home kits issued by emergency departments, ambulance services and mental health trusts.

‘We know from our work that the use of drugs is often a way to cope with despair and distress due to trauma, poverty, and a sense of hopelessness,’ said director of addictions Lee Ball. ‘Every death that results from this is a tragedy, even more so when that life could have been saved.’

Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2022 registrations at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/deathsrelatedtodrugpoisoninginenglandandwales/2022registrations

(Features, November 2023) Stayin’ Alive, A new family of synthetic opioids, known as nitazenes, have adulterated a number of illicit drugs in the UK. Information and downloadable resources.

(Features, June 2017): Meet the Fentanyls, a guide to the fentanyl family by Kevin Flemen.

(News, August 2023): Better utilisation of data and data sharing, including early warning systems, is needed to address the escalating drug crisis in the UK

(Partner Updates, September 2023): Release, alongside EuroNPUD and other drug treatment service colleagues in the UK, have produced harm reduction advice on nitazenes.

(News, January 2023): Fentanyl behind 80% increase in New York’s overdose deaths

Search the DDN archive for more on nitazenes, fentanyl and synthetic opioids.

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