Welsh drug deaths up by almost half 

More than 320 drug poisoning deaths were registered in Wales last year, an increase of 44 per cent on 2020’s figure, according to new statistics from Public Health Wales. Sixty-five per cent of these were classed as drug misuse deaths. 

Two thirds of the drug deaths involved a combination of drugs, including prescription medications and alcohol. As is the case with Scotland and England’s ongoing drug deaths crises, drug misuse deaths were disproportionately concentrated in deprived areas, with the death rate five times higher among those living in the most deprived quintile. Opioids were reported in more than 70 per cent of the deaths, of which more than 90 per cent involved heroin/morphine. 

Most of the deaths were in the 40-44 age range, although there were 13 among the under-25s. Although the overall ratio of male to female deaths was around 3:1, 2021 saw the highest ever number of female deaths, at 57. 

Rick Lines
Head of substance misuse at Public Health Wales, Rick Lines

‘Premature deaths from drug use are preventable,’ said head of substance misuse at Public Health Wales, Rick Lines. ‘Each drug-related death has a considerable and long-lasting impact upon the individual’s family, peers and communities. Whilst the impact of drug deaths are experienced by the whole socio-economic spectrum, they are more than five times more likely to occur in those living in the most deprived areas in Wales compared to the least deprived.’

Deaths involving cocaine had more than doubled over the last five years, he added, while the increase in deaths involving benzodiazepines was also concerning. ‘Wales operates a number of effective initiatives aimed at preventing or reducing drug deaths, including the national take-home naloxone programme and access to specialist substance misuse treatment. In the last year, naloxone was used in 288 overdose events, with only three deaths reported. However, in light of the scale of drug deaths in Wales, evidence on the impact and influence of different level policies and practices, and their role as barriers or facilitators to reducing drug deaths, is required to inform change.’

Alcohol Health Alliance chair Professor Sir Ian Gilmore called the increase ‘devastating’.

Meanwhile, the ongoing upheaval in Westminster has led to a reverse of the planned freeze in alcohol duty announced by then-chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, a decision that has been welcomed by campaigners. ‘As death rates from alcohol remain at record high levels, alcohol duty is fundamental in reducing the public health burden caused by alcohol,’ said Alcohol Health Alliance chair Professor Sir Ian Gilmore. ‘We are hopeful that this represents the start of a new approach to alcohol harm from the government, with the enormous costs from alcohol harm better offset with fairer duty policies.’

Harm reduction database Wales: drug-related mortality at https://phw.nhs.wales

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