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Drug deaths: Scottish minister vows to tackle “public health emergency”

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6776 (Published 02 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6776
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

The number of people dying from drug use in Scotland is a “public health emergency” that the government is determined to fix, the country’s public health minister has vowed.

Speaking at the Faculty of Public Health’s annual conference in Dunblane on 28 November, Joe Fitzpatrick said he would support any measures to reduce the “devastating impact of substance misuse.”

Scotland has the highest number of drug related deaths in Europe and possibly the world.1

Fitzpatrick said that the government would support the introduction of any evidence based measures that might reduce deaths from drug misuse. That could include the introduction of overdose prevention facilities with safe spaces for injecting.

“The harm and loss of life we are seeing in Scotland as a result of drug use is unprecedented, unacceptable. It’s also avoidable and must be addressed urgently,” he said.

A recent report from the UK parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee called for wide ranging changes to the UK’s approach to tackling drug misuse, including amending the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to allow safe spaces for people to use drugs.

Despite the UK government saying that it had no plans to do this, Fitzpatrick said that he would push for measures to be rolled out in Scotland. “What we are facing in Scotland is a public health emergency,” he said. “I am prepared to consider any course of action that is evidence based to save lives, whether its controversial or unpopular,” he said.

In a separate speech to the conference, Kirsten Horsburgh, strategy coordinator for drug death prevention at the Scottish Drugs Forum, called for the immediate adoption of harm reduction strategies to tackle the crisis. “There is overwhelming scientific evidence that harm reduction works,” she said. “We need to fully embrace and resource harm reduction to tackle this. It is completely inhumane that we don’t provide safe spaces for people to use drugs.”

In his speech Fitzpatrick also discussed the emerging data on the positive effect of minimum unit pricing on alcohol sales. He said, “In June there was the first evidence that shows a 3% decrease in alcohol sales across 2018, consumption reduced to the lowest levels we’ve seen in Scotland since 1994.2

“NHS Health Scotland is leading on a comprehensive and robust evaluation of minimum unit pricing over a five year period. It will not only be useful to us in Scotland but to others around the world who are following Scotland’s lead.”

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