Highest number of drug deaths in quarter of a century

Last year saw 3,744 drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales, according to the latest ONS figures – 2 per cent higher than the previous year (DDN, October 2016, page 4) and the highest number since comparable statistics began in 1993. While the figure relates to both legal and illegal drugs, almost 70 per cent were classed as drug misuse deaths.

However, while more than half of recorded drug poisoning deaths involved an opiate, heroin and/or morphine deaths have remained ‘stable’, says ONS, at 1,209 compared with 1,201 in 2015. The number of heroin and/or morphine deaths in males also fell for the first time since 2012 – to 935 from the previous year’s 957 – although female heroin/morphine deaths increased from 244 to 274, their highest recorded level.

Deaths related to cocaine were also at their highest levels since records began, at 371 – up by almost 170 per cent since 2012 – while deaths relating to the prescription drug pregabalin were up from just four in 2012 to more than 100. The National Crime Agency (NCA) has also announced that the number of UK deaths related to the powerful opioid fentanyl or its analogues has reached almost 60 in the last eight months alone.

The highest rate of drug misuse deaths in 2016 was among people aged 40-49, and once again the North East saw the highest mortality rate from drug misuse, at 77.4 deaths per 1m population, a 13 per cent increase on 2015’s figure.

Release’s executive director Niamh Eastwood called the statistics a ‘national crisis’ and accused the government of ‘abrogating’ its responsibility by cutting investment in treatment services and pursuing ‘failed’ policies. ‘The government claims it wants to protect young people from the harms of drugs, yet its new drug strategy, released in early July, makes no reference to providing harm reduction services for people who use drugs recreationally,’ she said. ‘The government must fund the forensic testing of drugs, including at nightclubs and music festivals, so that people can be better informed of the purity and content of any pills or powder that they are taking. They must also consider reforming the laws so that people who use drugs are not treated as criminals, as this acts as a barrier to seeking help.’

Transform also stated that the government must ‘accept responsibility’ for the record number of deaths – a ‘direct result of the Home Office’s scandalous approach’ to drugs.

The LGA, meanwhile, said the figures were a ‘major concern’ for councils and a ‘worrying public health challenge’, while Turning Point stressed the need for more funding and investment in treatment, a call echoed by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

‘While the UK government stubbornly refuses to make meaningful moves towards a more progressive, public health-based approach to drug policy, and while local authority treatment budgets continue to be cut, it should come as no surprise that drug deaths in England and Wales are continuing to rise,’ said RSPH drugs policy lead Ed Morrow, who stressed that the levelling-off of opiate-related deaths ‘may be credited’ to councils making take-home naloxone more readily available. ‘If we are to make serious inroads on reducing those deaths, however, we need a much more comprehensive package of harm reduction measures. This could include supervised injection sites – such as the one planned in Glasgow – which are proven internationally to be one of the most potent tools at our disposal for preventing opiate overdose deaths.’

Figures from National Records of Scotland also show that alcohol-related deaths north of the border have increased by 10 per cent since 2015 to 1,265, the highest number since the start of the decade. ‘Behind these appalling statistics are real people – sons, daughters, husbands, wives, parents, friends and colleagues – who have died too young because of a substance that’s cheap, widely available and constantly promoted,’ said chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, Alison Douglas.

Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2016 registrations at www.ons.gov.uk

Alcohol-related deaths at www.nrscotland.gov.uk


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