Drug-related deaths reported in the UK have risen by 11.8 per cent to 2,182 in a year, reveals a report released today by St George’s, University of London. The National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (np-SAD) report shows that the annual death rate is continuing to increase, up from the previous year’s 2.7 per cent rise.

The report – which covers notifications of drug-related deaths occurring in 2009 – shows an increase from the 1,952 deaths reported in 2008. Most of the deaths (1,698 – 77.8 per cent) were of men, only a slight increase from the previous year. And most deaths (1,415 – 64.8 per cent) were of people aged 25-44. Again, this was a very slight annual rise.

The report has been released by the International Centre for Drug Policy (ICDP) at St George’s. It contains information reported by coroners in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, as well as police forces in Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.

It coincides with another report on drug-related poisoning deaths registered – but not necessarily occurring – in 2009 for England and Wales, unveiled today by the Office for National Statistics. The two reports complement each other, providing a comprehensive description of the extent and nature of deaths caused by drug dependency and misuse. But they are compiled using different geographical and chronological criteria and so show differing results.

This year’s 11th annual np-SAD is the most comprehensive yet, and contains full breakdowns for each UK constituent country as well as the islands. It also follows recent drug death figures from Scotland – released by the General Register Office for Scotland, and again compiled using different parameters – showing a slight reduction in deaths.

Of the total deaths reported to the np-SAD, 1,524 were in England (1,374 in 2008), 479 in Scotland (478 in 2008), 102 in Wales (62 in 2008), 65 in Northern Ireland (30 in 2008), and 12 in the Islands (nine in 2008). Most were accidental overdoses (80.7 per cent, up from 76.4 per cent). However, the ONS report shows a slight overall reduction in deaths in England and Wales from 2008 to 2009, falling from 2,928 to 2,878.

In the np-SAD report, the area covered by the Brighton and Hove coroner reported the highest proportion of deaths in the country, with 23.55 for every 100,000 people aged 16 and over. East Lancashire (14 per 100,000) was second, and North Tyneside (13 per 100,000) was third highest.

Opiates such as heroin, morphine, methadone and opiate analgesics were implicated in most of the deaths, as in previous years. Heroin and morphine alone and in combination with other drugs accounted for the highest proportion of deaths – 52.9 per cent, a rise from 45.3 per cent in the previous year. Methadone deaths rose from 19.8 per cent to 23 per cent. Meanwhile, the ONS stated that heroin and morphine deaths in England and Wales (880) were down by two per cent, but methadone deaths (408) were up by eight per cent.

There has been a decline in deaths from stimulants such as cocaine (from 15.7 per cent to 11.4 per cent), amphetamines (from 4.8 per cent to 2.8 per cent) and ecstasy-type drugs (2.7 per cent to 0.3 per cent). This is thought to be a result of the increasing use of ‘legal highs’, such as ketamine, piperazines and GHB/GBL, in recent years. However, although deaths involving piperazines and GBL increased in 2009 (from 24 to 30) the np-SAD says that reported use of these drugs has now declined slightly. This is partly as a result of the government bans during the past year. The ONS report also showed a reduction in England and Wales deaths from cocaine, amphetamines and ecstasy-type drugs, falling by more than two per cent to 305.

As well as the reports on 2009 deaths, the np-SAD also outlines details of emerging new drugs such as the recently banned mephedrone. Until the end of July 2010, there have been 52 suspected mephedrone-related deaths, although confirmation of most of these cases is still needed.

Professor Hamid Ghodse – director of the ICDP – said: “This continuing rise in drug-related deaths is very concerning and shows that we must not waver in our efforts to prevent the loss of life. The effectiveness of both drug abuse prevention and treatment is reflected in the mortality data, so we know we still have a major problem.

“An immediate impact in reducing drug-related deaths could be achieved by improving the availability of effective treatment and rehabilitation services. However, in the long run, finding primary prevention strategies that work may be crucial if we want to have a major effect on drug-related mortality.

“Each of these deaths is a life wasted, and a family bereaved. Drug abuse is one of the most important social issues of our time, as illicit drugs kill people and destroy families.”

In addition to the np-SAD report, the ICDP at St George’s today released its annual Volatile Substance Mortality Project report. This includes figures on deaths related to volatile substances – gas, aerosols, glues and other solvents – occurring in 2008. In 2008 there were 36 deaths, down from 59 in 2007. This continues the decreasing trend, which has seen deaths drop from a peak of 152 in 1990.

However, the report shows a large increase in deaths attributed to helium – although, as an inert gas, it is not strictly a volatile substance. In 2008, there were 25 helium-related deaths, an increase from ten in the previous year.

The ONS report – Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales, 2009 – can be found here: