Sharp rise in fatal cocaine and heroin overdoses, discloses ONS
Punitive policy failing, says Lib Dem health spokesman, as 'horrifying statistics' reveal big increase in older victims
Deaths from cocaine and heroin overdoses rose sharply last year, according to the Office for National Statistics, reaching their highest level since 2001.
Figures from St George's hospital in London, a national centre for monitoring substance abuse, also showed a rise with the average age of victims now in the late 30s – a profile suggesting there may be an ageing cohort of habitual drug users.
The ONS figures, drawn only from England and Wales, show an 11% overall increase in drug poisonings in 2008 - compared with the previous year – and a total of 2,928 fatalities.
Of those, 897 involved heroin or morphine – up 8% on the previous year – and 235 deaths related to cocaine – up 20% on 2007.
A small number of deaths involved "legal highs", such as GBL and the amphetamine alternative BZP, which have since been outlawed by the government. The St George's hospital figures, compiled from coroners' reports, recorded 13 such deaths in 2008.
The ONS listed 99 fatalities involving amphetamines and 19 deaths related to cannabis use. The fastest rise in the death rate occurred in the 40-49 age group.
John Corkery, of St George's hospital, said the average age for drug victims had risen from 32 in 199 to 37.8 in 2008. "It could be that there is an ageing cohort of drug users," he said.
The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb said: "These are horrifying statistics. The toll of damage from drugs is immense and the cost to the NHS is enormous. The government's punitive policies and heavy-handed rhetoric on drugs are failing. Ministers must make sure that schools and public services work together to make sure that the message gets out that drugs kill."
The chief executive of drug information centre DrugScope, Martin Barne, said "The steady rise in deaths linked with cocaine use underlines the drug's harms at a time when use of the drug is again increasing, particularly among 16- to 24-year-olds."
He added: "The fastest rise in drug-related deaths is among older users and heroin remains the most commonly linked substance. This trend could reflect the fact that the heroin using population is ageing, with fewer younger people using and developing problems with the drug. While it is right to focus on drug use among young people, the need is for public health and overdose prevention interventions across all age groups. The recent announcement of pilot projects issuing naloxone, a substance which reverses opiate overdoses, is a welcome development. A continued investment in drug treatment is necessary to help reduce drug-related deaths and enable people to get the support they need to tackle drug dependency."
Owen Bowcott and Adam Gabbatt
August 26, 2009