Drug-related deaths in England and Wales reach record high

Drug-related deaths in England and Wales are the highest they have been since records began more than a quarter of a century ago, official figures show.

There were 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning recorded in England and Wales in 2018 – the highest number since records began in 1993, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

The official body said it was also the highest annual increase since records began, rising 16% (603 deaths) from 2017.

Deaths involving cocaine doubled over the three years to 2018, reaching their highest ever level.

So what do the figures show?

  • A total of 2,917 deaths were from illicit drugs in 2018 - a rise of 17%.

  • More than half of the total drug deaths (2,208) involved an opiate - a drug derived from or related to opium.

  • Deaths from legal highs have also doubled to 125 in the space of a year.

  • MDMA deaths rose from 56 to 92.

  • Cocaine-induced deaths have also doubled over three years to 2018, reaching their highest ever levels.

  • Around two-thirds of drug poisoning deaths were from drug misuse (2,917) - continuing a trend seen over the last decade.

  • Males accounted for more than two-thirds of drug poisonings (2,984, compared with 1,375 females).

  • Most of the recorded deaths were due to accidental poisoning (80% of males and 67% of females), and then intentional self-poisoning (16% of males and 30% of females).

  • The remaining deaths were caused by mental and behavioural disorders as a result of drug use or assault involving drugs.

The figures also include accidents and suicides which involved drugs, as well as complications such as deep vein thrombosis or septicaemia from intravenous drug use.

Almost half the deaths recorded last year will have happened in years previous, due to the time it can take for an inquest to be completed.

Statisticians believe that many deaths which occurred in 2018 will be missing from these figures.

  • What do the experts say?

Video report by ITV News Science Correspondent Tom Clarke

"Drug deaths have outstripped deaths from car accidents, they've now outstripped suicide as a cause of death" said the University of Kent's Professor Alex Stevens.

He told ITV News how the issue needs to be treated as a "public health emergency" across the United Kingdom, not just in Scotland.

Hitting out at the Government, Professor Stevens said more needs to be spent on funding drug services - spending just a quarter of the £2.5bn pledged towards prisons on treating substance abuse would not only double the current funding, but also save lives.

His call for better funding was echoed by healthcare professionals.

Dr Emily Finch of the Royal College of Psychiatrists told ITV News: "Treatment services have had their funding reduced by 28% over the last three or four years - and that is making a really significant difference to the quality and scope of these services."

Deaths involving opiates rose to their highest ever levels. Credit: AP

Ben Humberstone, deputy director for health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “The number of deaths from drug use in 2018 was the highest since our records began in 1993. We have also seen the biggest year-on-year percentage increase.

“Previously, this had been linked to a rise in deaths related to opiates like heroin and morphine, but last year there were also increases in deaths across a wider variety of substances including cocaine and what had been known as ‘legal highs’.

“We produce these figures to help inform decision makers working towards protecting those at risk of dying from drug poisoning.”