Drug-related deaths increase by 6% in England and Wales to record levels

Data from the Office for National Statistics show there were 4,859 drug-related deaths in 2021, the highest number since records began in 1993.
assortment of illegal drugs

The number of drug-related deaths in England and Wales rose by 6.5% in 2021, reaching the highest number since records began, according to a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The report, published on 3 August 2022, also noted a “significant increase” in the number of deaths involving new psychoactive substances, such as flubromazolam and etizolam, which increased by 88.3% in 2021, from 137 recorded in 2020 to 258 the following year.

Deaths involving methadone also increased substantially from 516 in 2020 to 663 in 2021, which the report said was “a statistically significantly higher rate [of recorded deaths] than the previous year”.

Overall, the report said that 4,859 deaths relating to drug poisoning were registered in England and Wales in 2021, which “is the highest number since records began in 1993”.

It added that the rate of drug-related deaths, recorded as 84.4 deaths per million in 2021, “has increased every year since 2012 after remaining relatively stable over the preceding two decades”.

Of deaths recorded in 2021, 3,060 were identified as drug misuse, accounting for 53.2 deaths per million people.

The ONS said it classifies deaths as a result of drug misuse if “the underlying cause is drug abuse or drug dependence, or any of the substances involved are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971”.

Some 45% (2,219) of the deaths recorded in 2021 involved opiates, with heroin and morphine most frequently recorded, having been included on the death certificates of 1,213 people.

The ONS report also revealed regional variation in the rates of drug-related deaths around the two nations, with the North East of England having the highest overall rate of drug poisoning and drug misuse deaths, at 163.4 deaths per million people.

The lowest rate of drug poisoning deaths was seen in London, at 47.6 deaths per million people, and the lowest rate of death by drug misuse was seen in the East of England at 27.4 deaths per million people.

Jon Murray, executive director of services at With You — a charity that supports people concerned about drinking, drug use, or mental health — said the latest figures were “deeply concerning”.

“Each one of these deaths is preventable and we know that with the right support, every person can recover,” he said.

Murray added: “It’s no surprise that drug-related deaths are highest in the most deprived areas of England and Wales. Too many people who need treatment and support aren’t accessing it, and too many people are unaware of the potential harms of their drug use.

“We know that the best way to get people the support they need is by running drug and alcohol services that are collaborative and integrated. At our service in Redcar & Cleveland, for example, anyone can access everything, from trauma-informed drug and alcohol support, clinical treatment, domestic violence and rough sleeper programs, all under one roof”.

“The recent government drugs strategy and investment are welcome, and with project ADDER starting to show benefits, we are starting to move in the right direction,” he continued.

Scotland currently has the highest rate of drug-misuse deaths in the UK, with a rate of 245 deaths per million people in 2020.

However, data from National Records of Scotland showed that in 2021, the rate fell by 1%, with 1,330 drug misuse deaths registered: 9 fewer than the previous year.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, August 2022, Vol 309, No 7964;309(7964)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.152495

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