Mortality rate from drug misuse highest ever
Last Friday (9 September 2016), the ONS published details on drug-related deaths in England and Wales registered in 2015, the highest number ever recorded.
The report which charts a continued growing trend in drug-related deaths since 2012 makes for distressing and depressing reading.
The headline findings are:
- There were 3,674 drug poisoning deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs registered in England and Wales in 2015, the highest since comparable records began in 1993.
- Of these, 2,479 (or 67%) were drug misuse deaths involving illegal drugs only.
- The mortality rate from drug misuse was the highest ever recorded, at 43.8 deaths per million population.
- Males were almost 3 times more likely to die from drug misuse than females (65.5 and 22.4 deaths per million population for males and females respectively).
Deaths involving heroin and/or morphine doubled in the last 3 years to 1,201 in 2015, and are now the highest on record.
- Deaths involving cocaine reached an all time high in 2015 when there were 320 deaths – up from 247 in 2014.
- People aged 30 to 39 had the highest mortality rate from drug misuse (98.4 deaths per million population), followed by people aged 40 to 49 (95.1 deaths per million).
- In 2015, the mortality rate from drug misuse was significantly lower in England than in Wales (42.9 compared with 58.3 deaths per million population).
- Within England, the North East had the highest mortality rate from drug misuse in 2015 for the third year running (68.2 deaths per million population), while the East Midlands had the lowest (29.8 deaths per million).
- The mortality rate from deaths involving New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) — AKA legal highs — is very low compared with heroin and/or morphine (1.9 deaths per million compared with 21.3). However, NPS deaths have increased sharply over the last 5 years, with 114 deaths registered in 2015 (up from 82 deaths in 2014).
The table below shows the figures by substances mentioned on death certificates. As you can see, there have been large increases in the number of deaths related to heroin, methadone, cocaine, NPS, gabapentin and pregabalin.
Vanessa Fearn, the researcher and statistician compiling this report, in an interview for the BBC, indicated a range of reasons for this increase:
Ms Fearn said people receiving treatment for drug abuse were “older than they used to be”.
She added: “Deaths involving heroin and morphine have more than doubled since 2012, partly driven by a rise in heroin purity and availability over the last three years.
“Age is also a factor in the record levels of drug deaths, as heroin users are getting older and they often have other conditions, such as lung disease and hepatitis, that make them particularly vulnerable.”
The death rate among people aged 30-39 is now at a record high, at 98.4 deaths per million population.
And deaths in the 40-49 bracket are also at a record high, with 95.1 deaths per million.
Ms Fearn also said 2014 was a record year for heroin production globally, which might also be impacting on the current availability of heroin.
The figures showed that there were 320 deaths involving cocaine, up from 247 in the previous year.
Mortality rates relating to that drug have increased for four consecutive years, with most cocaine-linked fatalities occurring in men aged 30 to 49.
The figure for cocaine-related deaths will include some where it was taken in the form of crack cocaine, as it is not possible to separately identify crack from other forms of the drug at post-mortem, the ONS report said.
It added: “Since cocaine is often taken alongside heroin, it is likely that changes in the purity and availability of heroin, as well as increases in the purity of cocaine, are contributing to the rise in deaths involving cocaine in recent years.”
Given that cuts in public expenditure have started to impact on drug and alcohol treatment services, it seems we must fear that next year’s figures will be even worse unless the Department of Health and Public Health England make this issue a priority.