Figures released today from the Office for National Statistics show that drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose to record levels in 2018, at their highest year-on-year rate since records began.
England & Wales saw 4,359 deaths in 2018 as a result of drug poisoning. This represents a huge increase of 16 percent on 2017, and by far the highest number of recorded fatalities in a single year since these statistics started being recorded. Drugs were responsible for 76.3 deaths per million people in 2018, compared with 66.1 in 2017.
The increase comes at a concerning time for those engaged in the harm reduction space, when deaths attributed to alcohol are also high and rising. It also comes amid the backdrop of the publication last month of the equivalent drug-related death figures for Scotland, which showed a dramatic 27 percent rise on the previous year’s data, putting fatality rates in Scotland on a par with the United States and higher than any EU member state.
While the data encompasses deaths from all drugs types, opiates such as heroin and morphine continued to be the deadliest. However, deaths from cocaine doubled between 2015 and 2018 to their highest ever level, while deaths involving new psychoactive substances (NPS) or “legal highs” jumped back up to their previous levels, having halved in 2017.
Although the female drug poisoning rate continued to rise modestly, there was an acute increase in the male rate, which leapt from 89.6 deaths per million in 2017 to 105.4 in 2018. Males accounted for two thirds of all drug-related deaths. The figures lay bare regional inequalities too. There is a marked North-South divide in drug misuse, which accounts for 96.3 deaths per million in the North East, almost double the England & Wales average. London had the lowest rate.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
These harrowing statistics outline the urgent need for investment in frontline services so that deaths can be prevented among users not currently accessing treatment. Reductions in funding must be reversed in order to allow lifesaving interventions which have been significantly reduced in scope, such as user outreach and needle exchanges, to meet demand.
Humankind is also calling for the opioid overdose reverser naloxone to be made readily available across England, in line with World Health Organisation and Public Health England recommendations. Lives could be saved if those most likely to experience an opioid overdose had access - such as police officers and paramedics, but also dependent prisoners upon release. A recent study has shown that overdoses account for 85 percent of all deaths in the first week post-release.
To read the full ONS report, click here.