How many people die from drugs?

DrugWise infographic on drug related deaths (PDF)

Types of drug-related deaths

The straight answer is that we do not know exactly how many drug-related deaths there are in the UK. This is because it depends on what definition of drug-related deaths is used, which is not a simple question. For example, these could include

  • people who are dependent on drugs and overdose
  • suicides by overdose, of people who have no previous history of using drugs
  • accidental poisoning or overdose
  • ecstasy-related deaths where people have died from overheating through dancing non-stop in hot clubs, rather than from the direct effect of the drugs
  • deaths associated with cigarette smoking
  • deaths from accidents where people are drunk or under the influence of drugs
  • murders and manslaughters where people are drunk or under the influence of drugs
  • deaths from driving while drunk or intoxicated
  • deaths from AIDS among injecting drug users
  • deaths which had nothing to do with the presence of a drug in the body, but were a result of ill-health caused in part by drug use.
  • Cause of death is recorded on death certificates but doctors may not mention drugs, even where drugs might be involved.

Despite these difficulties there are estimates of the possible number of deaths associated with different drugs:

The statistics

England and Wales

According to figures published by the Office for national Statistics in 2016:

  • There were 3,674 drug poisoning deaths involving both legal and illegal drugs registered in England and Wales in 2015, the highest since comparable records began in 1993. Of these, 2,479 (or 67%) were drug misuse deaths involving illegal drugs only.
  • The mortality rate from drug misuse was the highest ever recorded, at 43.8 deaths per million population.
  • Males were almost 3 times more likely to die from drug misuse than females (65.5 and 22.4 deaths per million population for males and females respectively).
  • Deaths involving heroin and/or morphine doubled in the last 3 years to 1,201 in 2015, and are now the highest on record.
  • Deaths involving cocaine reached an all time high in 2015 when there were 320 deaths – up from 247 in 2014.
  • People aged 30 to 39 had the highest mortality rate from drug misuse (98.4 deaths per million population), followed by people aged 40 to 49 (95.1 deaths per million).
  • Within England, the North East had the highest mortality rate from drug misuse in 2015 for the third year running (68.2 deaths per million population), while the East Midlands had the lowest (29.8 deaths per million).

Scotland

Based on the definition used for statistics from the National Records for Scotland, 706 drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland in 2015, 93 (15 per cent) more than in 2014. This was the largest number ever recorded, and 370 (110 per cent) higher than in 2005 (paragraph 3.1.1).

Males accounted for 69 per cent of the drug-related deaths in 2015 (paragraph 3.4.1).

In 2015, there were 249 drug-related deaths of people aged 35-44 (35 per cent of all drug-related deaths), 183 in the 45-54 age-group (26 per cent), and 163 drug-related deaths of 25-34 year olds (23 per cent)

Reducing drug related deaths

In 2016 the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) explored the substantial increases in the number of people dying in the UK where illicit drugs are reported to be involved. The largest increase was in deaths related to the misuse of opioids; 2,677 opioid-related deaths were registered in the UK in 2015.

Their report stated the following:

Through our brief review of the potential causes of recent trends in opioid-related death, the ACMD can assert … that the ageing profile of heroin users with increasingly complex health needs (including long-term conditions and poly-substance use), social care needs and continuing multiple risk behaviours has contributed to recent increases in drug-related deaths.

Other possible causes of recent increases include greater availability of heroin at street level, deepening of socio-economic deprivation since the financial crisis of 2008, changes to drug treatment and commissioning practices, and lack of access to mainstream mental and physical health services for this ageing cohort.

We found that although the current definition and measurement of opioid-related deaths across the UK is consistent and useful, there are weaknesses in current data collection methods that mean the trends over time can be difficult to interpret. Improving the processes of collecting information on opioid-related deaths would ensure that policy makers have better information to make better decisions to reduce deaths.The ACMD also recommends that governments fund independent research in order to provide a better understanding of the causes and drivers of trends in opioid-related deaths, as well as all other drug-related deaths.

See also our FAQ on Ecstasy deaths

Updated January 2017