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How many people die from drugs?

The straight answer is that we do not know exactly how many drug-related deaths there are in the UK.

Types of drug-related deaths

There is because it depends on what definition of drug-related deaths is used, which is not a simple question. For example, these could include

  • people who are dependent on drugs and overdose
  • suicides by overdose, of people who have no previous history of using drugs
  • accidental poisoning or overdose
  • ecstasy-related deaths where people have died from overheating through dancing non-stop in hot clubs, rather than from the direct effect of the drugs
  • deaths associated with cigarette smoking
  • deaths from accidents where people are drunk or under the influence of drugs
  • murders and manslaughters where people are drunk or under the influence of drugs
  • deaths from driving while drunk or intoxicated
  • deaths from AIDS among injecting drug users
  • deaths which had nothing to do with the presence of a drug in the body, but were a result of ill-health caused in part by drug use.

Cause of death is recorded on death certificates but doctors may not mention drugs, even where drugs might be involved.

Despite these difficulties there are estimates of the possible number of deaths associated with different drugs:

Tobacco

The latest estimate from the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre is that, in 2011, 79,100 people died in England from deaths caused by smoking. This was 18% of all deaths of adults aged 35 and over. [1]

Alcohol

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, in 2011, 8,748 people died from alcohol-related deaths. The National Statistics definition includes only those deaths from causes regarded as being most directly caused due to alcohol consumption, and not other diseases where alcohol has some causal relationship, such as cancers of the mouth, oesophagus and liver, and also does not include deaths from road traffic and other accidents. [2]

Solvents

The International Centre for Drug Policy at St George's, University of London, keeps statistics on volatile substance abuse deaths. The latest year covered is 2009, when there were 46 deaths in the UK associated with volatile substance abuse. The total number of people in the UK who died from volatile substance abuse between 1971 and 2009 was 2,390. The decade from 2000-2009 saw a significant fall in deaths, from an average of 89 per year between 1990-1999, to an average of 54 per year between 2000-2009. [3]

HIV / AIDS

Deaths from AIDS among injecting drug users who have contracted HIV by sharing injecting equipment are very difficult to judge exactly. HIV diagnoses among people who inject drugs are at relatively low levels in the UK, with 132 people contracting HIV from injecting drug use in 2011. The Health Protection Agency's latest figures, for 2011, show that 1.2% of people who inject drugs were infected with HIV, and that there were 1,636 people living with HIV as a result of injecting drug use. [4]

Other Drugs

In relation to the whole range of problems which can happen to those who use drugs, death is by far the least likely outcome, but one which, not surprisingly, attracts most attention and causes most concern. Like all data about illegal drug use, information about deaths comes from a variety of sources that combine to present a patchy and incomplete picture. Hence this is a highly simplified overview of what we know about deaths from drug use and how these compare to deaths caused by alcohol and tobacco.

Sources of data

Data is held by The Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the General Register Offices (GRO) for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Data is also collected by the national programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (np-SAD), based within the International Centre for Drug Policy at St George's Hospital, University of London. It was set up initially to track and monitor the deaths of drug addicts who had been notified to the Home Office. St George's Hospital, University of London also collate the annual survey of solvent deaths.

ONS figures for drug poisoning deaths in England and Wales in 2011 were 2,652, down from 2,928 in 2008. These figures include accidental and deliberate overdose with medicines (excluding paracetamol, which is related to roughly 1,000 deaths per year, most of which is suicide). However, the most recent statistics show that deaths involving just drugs of misuse have dropped to 1,605, down from 1,939 in 2008. [5]

With many of these deaths, people had also been using other drugs, and indeed might not have died had they not been taking more than one drug.

England

Psychoactive substances implicated in np-SAD deaths, England, 2011 [6]

Drug Category Number of cases where substance was implicated alone Number of cases where substance was implicated, both alone and in combination
Total - 1,172
Alcohol in combination - 325
Amphetamines 19 43
Anti-depressants 65 287
Anti-epileptics 1 5
Anti-Parkinson's 1 5
Anti-psychotics 15 66
Cannabis 6 23
Cocaine 17 122
Ecstasy-type drugs 6 20
GHB/GBL 4 10
Heroin/morphine 103 355
Hypnotics/sedatives 28 286
Methadone 82 327
Other opiates / opioid analgesics 81 328

Wales

Psychoactive substances implicated in deaths reported by Coroners meting np-SAD criteria, Wales, 2011 [6]

Drug Category Number of cases where substance was implicated alone Number of cases where substance was implicated both alone and in combination
Total - 79
Alcohol-in-combination - 17
Amphetamines 2 4
Anti-depressants 3 14
Anti-epileptics 1

1

Anti-Parkinson's 0 0
Anti-psychotics 0 6
Cannabis 0 0
Cocaine 1 2
Ecstasy-type drugs 1 1
GHB/GBL 0 0
Heroin/morphine 8 34
Hypnotics/sedatives 1 24
Methadone 7 31
Other opiates/opioid analgesics 1 21

Scotland

Psychoactive substances implicated in drug-related deaths as reported by Scottish police forces to the SCDEA, 2011 [6]

Drug Category Number of cases where substance was implicated alone Number of cases where substance was implicated both alone and in combination
Total - 333
Alcohol-in-combination - 69
Amphetamines 2 14
Anti-depressants 1 22
Anti-epileptics 1 4
Anti-Parkinson's 0 0
Anti-psychotics 1 2
Cannabis 0 0
Cocaine 2 27
Ecstasy-type drugs 5 6
GHB/GBL 0 0
Heroin/morphine 47 138
Hypnotics/sedatives 3 118
Methadone 45 163
Other opiates/opioid analgesics 10 75

Northern Ireland

Psychoactive substances reported by NISRA and Coroners meeting np-SAD criteria, Northern Ireland, 2011. [6]

Drug Category Number of cases where substance was implicated alone Number of cases where substance was implicated both alone and in combination
Total - 67
Alcohol-in-combination - 24
Amphetamines 0 1
Anti-depressants 3 27
Anti-epileptics 0 2
Anti-Parkinson's 0 0
Anti-psychotics 1 13
Cannabis 0 1
Cocaine 1 2
Ecstasy-type drugs 0 0
GHB/GBL 0 0
Heroin/morphine 1 6
Hypnotics/sedatives 1 35
Methadone 0 1
Other opiates/opioid analgesics 9 37

Sources

[1]. NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre, Statistics on Smoking: England, 2012

[2]. Office for National Statistics, Alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom, 2011

[3]. International Centre for Drug Policy, St George's, University of London, Trends in UK deaths associated with abuse of volatile substances, 1971-2009

[4]. Health Protection Agency, Shooting Up: Infections among people who inject drugs in the UK in 2011, An Update - November 2012

[5]. Office for National Statistics, Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales, 2011

[6]. International Centre for Drug Policy, St George's, University of London, Drug-related Deaths in the UK: Annual Report 2012

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