Drug-related deaths in England and Wales reach record high

3 August 2021, 21:28 | Updated: 3 August 2021, 21:42

The number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales is at its highest since records began in 1993
The number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales is at its highest since records began in 1993. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales have risen for the eighth year in a row and remain at their highest level in more than a quarter of a century, figures show.

There were 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning registered in England and Wales in 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, the highest since records began in 1993 and up 3.8 per cent from the previous year.

It comes just days after figures revealed Scotland had registered 1,339 drug-related deaths last year, meaning the country continues to have the highest drug death rate in Europe.

Eytan Alexander, a recovering addict and chief executive of the UK Addiction Treatment Group, said the rise is "saddening but unsurprising".

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He said: "We're living in a parallel pandemic; a drug, alcohol and mental health pandemic that has only worsened due to the virus.

"Enough is enough now, we need to come together as a society and take real action to help vulnerable people before more people lose their lives."

The ONS figures cover fatal accidents, suicides and complications involving controlled and non-controlled drugs, prescription and over-the-counter medications.

They show that rates of drug-related deaths have risen by more than 60 per cent in the past 10 years.

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Almost a fifth of the deaths in 2020 were the result of accidental poisoning, with just under that being the result of mental and behaviour disorders arising from drug use.

Due to death registration delays, around half of the deaths will have occurred in the previous year and the majority before the coronavirus pandemic, the ONS said.

The drug death rate varied by gender, location, societal factors, and age.

The North East experienced the highest rate, three times higher than London, which saw the lowest rate.

Males accounted for more than two thirds of the registered deaths.

The rates of drug related deaths for males and females in the most deprived areas of England were around five-and-a-half times higher than those in the least deprived parts.

Jon Murray, executive director of services in England at the charity With You, said it is no surprise that deaths were highest in the most deprived areas.

He said: "Issues such as rising homelessness, poor mental health and a lack of economic opportunities all lead to people using drugs, and for many, these challenges have become worse due to the pandemic."

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The highest rate of drug misuse deaths was found in those aged 45 to 49, followed by those aged 40 to 44.

So-called Generation X, born in the 1970s, has consistently had the highest rates in the past quarter of a century.

The ONS said possible explanations for the rise could be that there is an ageing cohort of drug users experiencing the effects of long-term use and becoming more susceptible to a fatal overdose.

The figures follow a landmark review by Dame Carol Black, which set out 30 recommendations to Government to help overcome drug harm and called for significant investment in England's treatment and recovery system.

The Government has said it will set up a new drugs unit to help end illegal drug-related illness and deaths, and has launched a consultation to improve access to naloxone, which helps reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

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Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the Government needed to "wake up to the fact that cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths".

She added: "Years of cuts have left addictions services ill-equipped to treat people and prevent these deaths from rising."

Mark Moody, chief executive of the charity Change Grow Live, said: "For things to improve, we must directly challenge the stigma faced by people who use drugs.

"This starts by recognising that drug dependency is a chronic health condition which must be integrated alongside NHS services, criminal justice pathways and housing support."

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Clare Taylor, national director of operations at Turning Point, said every drug-related death is preventable and the rise constitutes a "public health emergency".

She said: "We need to make sure that support is available to anyone with a drug or alcohol problem and services are able to intervene early, which we hope will be achieved if Dame Carol Black's recommendations are implemented in full."

A Government spokesman called every drug-related death a tragedy, adding: "We are already investing £148 million to tackle the root causes of drug misuse, including £80 million for treatment and recovery - the largest investment in the drug treatment system for 15 years."