PHE ‘does not recognise’ picture painted in think tank report

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Public Health England (PHE) has issued a statement that it does not recognise the portrait of a treatment system ‘unambitious for recovery’ in the No quick fix report from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).

The report, which has received extensive media coverage, states that ‘more than 40,000 people’ were being ‘abandoned on state-supplied heroin substitutes’ for more than four years, and that a ‘drug and alcohol crisis’ was ‘fuelling social breakdown’. 

While England continued to face major challenges from substance use, it was wrong to argue that the treatment system was ‘broken’, said the statement from PHE’s director of alcohol and drugs, Rosanna O’Connor. ‘This ignores the considerable progress made,’ she said. ‘The system is continually evolving, has risen to meet existing challenges and is developing effective responses to emerging ones – not least the proliferation of new drugs.’ 

According to the CSJ report, the UK has become ‘a hub for “legal high” websites’, with postal services acting as ‘couriers in the deadly trade’ and responses to new psychoactive substances ‘bureaucratic and inadequate’. It also states that, according to Freedom of Information data, 55 per cent of English local authorities have cut their residential treatment budgets since the coalition came to power, while ‘harm reduction services that maintain people in their addiction have been preserved under the NHS ring-fence’, with a 40 per cent rise in the number of people on substitute prescription for more than a decade. 

‘There is a perception amongst some that alcohol and drug abuse are in remission,’ says the document. ‘Our research shows the opposite. The costs to society of substance abuse are rising. Use of opiates and crack remains high and roughly one new drug enters the market each week.’ The report argues that there are entrenched ‘vested interests’ in the treatment system, with supporters of substitute treatment ‘resistant to reform’.

‘Drug and alcohol abuse fuels poverty and deprivation, leading to family breakdown and child neglect, homelessness, crime, debt, and long-term worklessness,’ said CSJ director Christian Guy. ‘From its impact on children to its consequences for pensioners, dependency destroys lives, wrecks families and blights communities.’

Although methadone could be ‘a way of stabilising chaotic drug users’ it was often used to ‘keep a lid on problems’, he continued, constituting a system ‘no different to taxpayers supporting an alcoholic by prescribing them vodka instead of them drinking gin. Whilst NHS funding for open-ended methadone programmes in England is largely protected, support to residential programmes which get people clean is being slashed.’

Meanwhile, there have been fresh warnings about new psychoactive substances in the PHE-commissioned National Poisons Information Service’s (NPIS) annual review, with calls to its experts about ‘legal highs’ increasing by nearly 50 per cent since 2011. ‘People should be aware that as many of these products are relatively new there is much less information about their safety,’ said director of NPIS’ Newcastle unit, Dr Simon Thomas. 

No quick fix: exposing the depth of Britain’s drugs and alcohol problem at www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk

National Poisons Information Service – annual report 2012/2013 at www.hpa.org.uk/Publications/ChemicalsPoisons/NationalPoisonsInformationServiceAnnualReports/