Drug-related deaths rise to record high

The Office for National Statistics today published statistics covering deaths related to drug poisonings in England and Wales for the year 2021. Once again there has been a rise (6.3%) and another record high. Every year of the past eight has now brought an precedented level of death, with an increase of over 60% in the past decade.

Trends that have existed for a number of years have continued. The close correlation between deaths and socio-economic conditions is striking, with the North-East seeing multiple times more deaths than more affluent regions. Men born in the 1970s continue to be the largest group dying, although there was also a stark increase in the number of women. Opiate related deaths are 2% down on last year, whilst deaths related to poly-drug use, cocaine and benzodiazepines continue to rise.

Collective Voice Director Oliver Standing says:

‘It’s hard to know what to say at this moment of terrible déjà vu.

Every death is a tragedy that leaves behind a trail of pain for families, friends and support workers. But the troubling reality is that most will go unnoticed and un-mourned by mainstream society. It is still predominantly our poorest citizens who are dying, in our deindustrialised regions and most marginalised communities. The bottom line is that only sustained political action can reduce the health and socio-economic inequalities that ultimately drive so many drug related deaths.

2021 saw some heroic efforts from treatment and recovery services and partners to adapt to the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic, which continues to impact on service delivery. Dame Carol Black’s excellent reports, the Drug Strategy and its attendant funding have provided our system with an opportunity to renew after the famine years of austerity, and work together to prevent future deaths.

Drug markets are changing and patterns of drug use are too. Drug treatment providers must ensure the current investment is used to both meet current need and enable innovation in their services to reduce the rising harms from poly-drug use and the use of cocaine, street benzos and alcohol. The increase in the rates of methadone poisonings are worrying and demand scrutiny from providers, local and national government.

Unfolding health integration reforms should provide a much-needed opportunity to build better pathways into health services and address support needs through a frame of health inequalities.

Ultimately a complex problem like reducing drug related deaths demands parallel responses from providers, commissioners, officials and those with lived experience. The ten-year scale of the drug strategy must be buttressed with sustained, protected funding to match.

It is only by working together across organisational boundaries that we can hope to make the significant progress so desperately needed. We must all strive to do so in the hope that next year’s statistics may bring less dispiriting news.’

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