Deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales are at an all time high, with an increasing number of people dying after using cocaine and opiates, data shows.
Charities have warned that the numbers show there is a public health emergency, with the pandemic negatively affecting people with substance abuse problems. In 2020, 4,561 deaths, or the equivalent of 79.5 deaths per million people. That’s 3.8% more than the 2019 numbers and the highest number since records began in 1993.
Men accounted for more than two-thirds of deaths in 2020, a disparity consistent with previous years. The highest rate of drug abuse deaths was found among people aged 45 to 49, followed closely by those aged 40 to 44.
About half of all deaths in 2020 involved an opioid – a pain reliever such as codeine and fentanyl – and 777 deaths involved cocaine, 9.7% more than in 2019, and more than five times the amount recorded ten years ago.
The rate of cocaine-related deaths among women has increased by more than 800% over the past 10 years, from 16 deaths in 2010 to 158 deaths in 2020.
Eytan Alexander, a recovering drug addict and managing director of UK drug treatment centers, said the rise was sad but not surprising, with cocaine-related deaths “mostly unsurprisingly … given that [the drug] is so readily available and as easy to order as a Deliveroo ”.
“We are living in a parallel pandemic: a pandemic of drugs, alcohol and mental health that has only worsened because of the virus. Enough is enough… we need to come together as a society and take concrete action. “
Drug poisoning rates were 60.9% higher in 2020 than in 2010. The rate has increased every year since 2012; the increase from 2019 was not statistically significant.
Dr Emily Finch, vice-president of the faculty of addictions at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said years of cuts had left addiction services “ill-equipped”. She added that more funding was needed “and that people living with addictions must have access to the mental health supports they desperately need.”
Clare Taylor, national director of operations for Turning Point, which runs drug and alcohol recovery services, said the numbers showed “a public health emergency” that required an immediate response.
“Covid-19 has had an impact on the mental health of the country, but the effect of isolation, financial insecurity and fear has affected many who were already vulnerable, including those with history of drug or alcohol problems and some people did not receive the support they needed, ”she added, saying austerity and budget cuts had also led to an increase in deaths related to Drugs.
“Every drug and alcohol related death is preventable, and our hearts go out to everyone who has lost someone this way. “
There was an increase in the number of deaths involving benzodiazepines in 2020 (a 19.3% increase over 2019; from 399 to 476 deaths), pregabalin (an increase of 41.0%; from 244 to 344 deaths), gabapentin (an increase of 32.6%; from 89 to 118 deaths) and zopiclone (increase of 4.3%; from 140 to 146 deaths).
The age cohort born between 1970 and 1979, often referred to as Generation X, has consistently experienced the highest rates of drug abuse-related deaths over the past 25 years.
Mark Moody, chief executive of the Change Grow Live charity, also called for immediate action. “For things to improve, we need to tackle the stigma against people who use drugs directly. It starts by recognizing that drug addiction is a chronic health problem that needs to be integrated into NHS services, criminal justice channels and housing support. “
In 2020, the highest rate of drug abuse deaths was seen in the North East, while the lowest rate was in London. The North East has recorded the highest rate of drug abuse over the past eight years and has a statistically significantly higher rate than any other region in England.