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Drug-related deaths worst ever
4,561 individuals died because of drug poisoning in 2020, the worst ever figure.

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Cocaine-related deaths continue to rise

Following on from the dire news from Scotland last week that 1,339 people died of drug misuse last year, yesterday’s figures for England and Wales were equally depressing.  The official data: Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2020 registrations reported that 4,561 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered (equivalent to a rate of 79.5 deaths per million people); this is 3.8% higher than the number of deaths registered in 2019 (4,393 deaths; 76.7 deaths per million). This is the worst number since records began in 1993.

Key findings

  • Among males, there were 109.7 drug poisoning deaths registered per million in 2020 (3,108 registered deaths), compared with 49.8 deaths per million among females (1,453 deaths).

  • Two-thirds (or 2,996) of registered drug poisoning deaths in 2020 were related to drug misuse, accounting for 52.3 deaths per million people.

  • Rates of drug-misuse death continue to be elevated among those born in the 1970s, with the highest rate in those aged 45 to 49 years.

  • The North East continues to have the highest rate of deaths relating to drug misuse (104.6 deaths per million people); London had the lowest rate (33.1 deaths per million people).

  • Approximately half of all drug poisoning deaths registered in 2020 involved an opiate (49.6%; 2,263 deaths); 777 deaths involved cocaine, which is 9.7% more than 2019, and more than five times the amount recorded a decade ago (144 deaths in 2010).

It is important to note that statistics are based on the year of death registration – because of death registration delays, around half of these deaths will have occurred in the previous year (2019), and the majority will have occurred before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the UK. Many of us fear that the pandemic will be linked to a higher number of drug-related deaths but this will not be borne out until next year’s figures.



The official stats reveal a number of key trends:

Death rate rises by >60% in the last decade

Rates of drug-related poisoning were 60.9% higher in 2020 (79.5 deaths per million) than they were in 2010 (49.4 per million). The rate has increased every year since 2012.

Drug misuse deaths

Of the 4,561 registered drug poisoning deaths, 2,996 were related to drug misuse. The rate of death relating to drug misuse in 2020 was 52.3 deaths per million people.

Higher rate of men dying

The male rate of drug misuse was 76.3 deaths per million in 2020 (2,165 registered deaths) and the female rate was 28.7 deaths per million (831 deaths).

People in their 40s most at risk

In 2020, the highest rate of drug misuse deaths was found in those aged 45 to 49 years, closely followed by those aged 40 to 44 years. This age cohort, born between 1970 and 1979, and often referred to as ‘Generation x’, have consistently had the highest rates of drug misuse deaths for the past 25 years.

North-South divide

In 2020, the highest rate of drug misuse deaths was observed in the North East (104.6 deaths per million; 258 registered deaths), while the lowest rate was in London (33.1 deaths per million; 296 deaths). The North East has had the highest rate of drug misuse for the past eight years and has a statistically significantly higher rate than all other regions of England.

Almost half of all drug poisonings continue to involve an opiate

For deaths registered in 2020, a total of 2,263 drug poisoning deaths involved opiates; this was 4.8% higher than in 2019 (2,160 deaths) and 48.2% higher than in 2010 (1,527 deaths). Opiates were involved in just under half (49.6%) of drug poisonings registered in 2020, increasing to 64.5% when we exclude deaths that had no drug type recorded on the death certificate.

Cocaine deaths rise for the ninth consecutive year

There were 777 deaths involving cocaine registered in 2020, which was 9.7% higher than the previous year (708 deaths), and the number of deaths have increased by five times since 2010 (144 deaths). In 2020, males accounted for 79.7% of the deaths involving cocaine (619 males compared with 158 females).

Increase in potentially dangerous drug combinations

There have been increasing numbers of deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2020 (a rise of 19.3% when compared with 2019; from 399 to 476 deaths), pregabalin (a rise of 41.0%; from 244 to 344 deaths), gabapentin (a rise of 32.6%; from 89 to 118 deaths) and zopiclone (a rise of 4.3%; from 140 to 146 deaths).


In reading this grim list of statistics, I always remind myself that every single death is a tragedy and leaves behind devastated families and friends.


Thanks to Sharon McCutcheon for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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