England and Wales have once again recorded their highest ever number of drug-related deaths, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
There were 3,756 deaths related to drug poisoning in 2017, a slight increase on 2016’s figure of 3,744 (DDN, September 2017, page 4) and the highest number since records began. However, while drug-related deaths rose by ‘a statistically significant amount’ each year between 2012 and 2015 – mainly driven by heroin-related fatalities – rates since 2015 have only increased slightly and remain ‘broadly stable’, says ONS.
Two-thirds of deaths were among men, and once again the North East had a ‘significantly higher’ death rate than any other region. While the figures relate to both illegal and legal drugs, almost 70 per cent were classed as the result of ‘drug misuse’, with the highest rate of these in the 40-49 age group.
Although deaths from ‘most opioids’ have remained steady, fentanyl-related deaths have continued to rise – to 75, from 58 in 2016 – while deaths related to cocaine have now increased for six consecutive years. There were 432 cocaine-related deaths in 2017, up from 371 the previous year. The number of deaths related to pregabalin, meanwhile, has risen from just four in 2009 to 136, although NPS-related deaths halved between 2016 – when the Psychoactive Substances Act was introduced – and 2017, down to 61 from 123.
Release said the death rates were a ‘national crisis’ requiring a coordinated public health response, and called for the establishment of consumption rooms, scaled-up access to naloxone, and central funding for heroin-assisted treatment.
‘The government is driving this devastating public health crisis by punishing people for their drug use instead of implementing compassionate, evidence-based policies,’ said executive director Niamh Eastwood. ‘By criminalising people for drug possession, the government is dissuading people who want help from seeking it. This, in turn, is fuelling drug-related deaths.
‘To make matters worse, the government is actively blocking the opening of life-saving drug consumption rooms, despite calls for their introduction from treatment service users, health professionals, and even the Scottish Parliament. The government has also slashed funding to essential treatment services, leaving thousands of people at the mercy of a postcode lottery as to whether their local authorities will provide the support that they need.’
‘The continuing high rates of drug-related deaths and the emerging threat of overdoses associated with fentanyl points to a national need to improve the balance of harm reduction initiatives,’ added a spokesperson for Change Grow Live (CGL). ‘We know what effective harm reduction consists of: rapid access to effective substitute opioid prescription; supporting take-home naloxone programmes; robust identification systems for those most at-risk, as well as addressing existing health conditions wherever possible.
‘It is essential that harm reduction is prioritised as a core and essential element of treatment, giving people support to reduce the harms from drugs and achieve sufficient stability to keep themselves safe and alive.
Deaths relating to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2017 registrations at www.ons.gov.uk