Drug-related deaths in England and Wales remain at record levels, ONS report shows

There were just under 4,400 deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2019; the highest number recorded since the data time series began in 1993. 

Illicit drugs and drug paraphernalia

Deaths related to drug poisoning remained at record levels in 2019, according to figures published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Just under 4,400 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered in England and Wales in 2019, representing an age-standardised mortality rate of 76.7 deaths per one million people. This is the highest number recorded since the data time series began in 1993.

However, the figure represents a 0.8% increase on deaths in 2018, compared with a 16% increase in the number of registered deaths between 2017 and 2018 — the highest recorded annual increase.

Around 2,880 of all registered drug poisoning deaths in 2019 were related to drug misuse, a small decrease since 2018.

However, more than 700 deaths were owing to drug poisonings involving cocaine; more than six times the figure recorded in 2011. The increase was significantly higher in women, where a 26.5% increase in drug-related deaths involving cocaine was recorded.

There were 125 deaths involving new psychoactive substances in 2019, which was consistent with levels seen in 2018.

Overall, the northeast of England had a statistically significant increase in the rate of deaths relating to drug misuse, when compared with all other English regions; equivalent to 95 deaths per one million people. The east of England had the lowest rate at 33.6 deaths per one million people.

Analysis by deprivation also showed that, in the past decade, rates of drug poisoning deaths were higher in the most deprived areas of England and Wales compared with the least; this was particularly the case among those aged in their 40s.

“The number of deaths, due to drug poisoning, registered in 2019 remains at a similar level to 2018,” said Ben Humberstone, deputy director of Health Analysis and Life Events at the ONS.

“Almost half of all drug-related deaths involved opiates, such as heroin and morphine. However, cocaine deaths rose for the eighth consecutive year to their highest level.”

Mark Moody, chief executive of the national health and social care charity Change Grow Live, said that current drug laws were “outdated” and “not evidence-based”, and that an overhaul was “long overdue”.

“Drug-related deaths are not an issue faced only by the drug treatment sector. Substance misuse, social inequality and poor health – mental and physical – are all connected. This is clearly shown in the data as, over the last decade, the death rate has been significantly higher in deprived areas.

“We are at a crucial tipping point. Without a change in direction and without evidence-based approaches, deaths will continue to increase.”

The data released by ONS related to deaths registered in 2019 and therefore does not cover deaths that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, October 2020;Online:DOI:10.1211/PJ.2020.20208445