Deaths from drug poisoning in English and Welsh men reach five year peak

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 03 September 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1521
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1Margate

    Almost 2000 men died from drug poisoning last year in England and Wales, the highest number for five years, the latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show.

    Deaths linked to heroin and morphine accounted for the largest amount of the total number of 2640 deaths from drug poisoning in men and women in 2007, but one of the sharpest rises in deaths involved methadone.

    The figures showed that 1914 deaths of men were related to drug poisoning, the highest recorded number since 2002—and a rise of 7% from the 1782 deaths recorded in 2006.

    Deaths among women, however, were at their lowest recorded annual number since the ONS drug poisoning database was begun in 1993. The number of drug poisoning deaths among women fell by 8%, from 788 deaths in 2006 to 726 in 2007.

    The database covers accidents and suicides involving drug poisoning as well as poisoning resulting from substance misuse and drug dependence.

    Overall the number of deaths from drug poisoning has remained stable—2623 in 2003 and 2640 in 2007. The number of deaths involving heroin and morphine rose by 16% from 2006, going up from 713 to 829. An even bigger increase was noted in deaths involving methadone, which rose to 325, a rise of 35% on the 2006 figure, reaching the highest level since 1999.

    The long term upward trend in the number of deaths involving cocaine continued, reaching 196 deaths in 2007, the highest recorded number since 1993. In contrast, the numbers of deaths involving antidepressants, paracetamol, and aspirin were all at their lowest since records began.

    Among men, those aged 20-29 had the highest rate of deaths related to substance misuse between 1993 and 2002, but the pattern is changing: from 2003 men aged 30-39 were the group with the highest rate of deaths.

    Harry Shapiro, director of communications for the drug information charity Drugscope, said, “It look as if we have an ageing heroin population, but nevertheless it also underlines the fact that just because somebody has been using heroin for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean they are immunised against drug death.”

    The drug treatment charity Addaction’s spokeswoman, Clare McNeil, said, “The fact that we are continuing to see an increase in drug related deaths year on year is very worrying.

    “Typically what we find is that most people who die from a drug related overdose are polydrug users. We have seen an increase in speedballing—the practice of combining crack cocaine and heroin—and people are largely unaware of the risks of mixing drugs with other drugs and especially alcohol.”

    A spokesperson for Frank (, a government funded help and advisory service for drug misusers, said, “It is worrying that the number of young men dying due to drugs such as cocaine and heroin has increased.

    “People often don’t realise the real dangers of drugs, because at first it can seem harmless, but these sad statistics tell another story.”

    A Department of Health spokesperson said, “The figures published show that the number of deaths from illegal drugs is remaining stable. This is in contrast to the sharp increases in the number of drug related deaths that were identified in the 1990s.

    “We are committed to doing all we can to further reduce the numbers of deaths associated with drug use. This is why we launched the “Reducing Drug-related Harms” action plan in May 2007.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a1521


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