How many people die from drugs?

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 the ONS publication: Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2022 registrations

  • In England and Wales, 4,907 deaths related to drug poisoning were registered in 2022, equivalent to a rate of 84.4 deaths per million people, this is similar to the rate last year (84.0 deaths per million, 4,859 deaths).
  • The age-standardised mortality rate for deaths related to drug poisoning has risen every year since 2012.
  • Among males, there were 114.3 drug-poisoning deaths registered per million in 2022 (3,240 deaths), compared with 55.8 deaths per million among females (1,667 deaths).
  • Of drug-poisoning deaths registered in 2022, 3,127 were identified as drug misuse, accounting for 53.9 deaths per million people.
  • Rates of drug misuse deaths continue to be elevated among those born in the 1970s, often referred to as “Generation X”, with the highest rate in those aged 40 to 49 years.
  • Just under half of all drug-poisoning deaths registered in 2022 involved an opiate (46.1%; 2,261 deaths), while 857 deaths involved cocaine, which is 2.0% more than 2021 and represents the 11th consecutive annual rise.
  • The North East continues to have the highest rates of deaths relating to drug poisoning and drug misuse (133.9 deaths per million people and 81.7 per million, respectively); London had the lowest rate for drug poisonings (56.6 deaths per million people), and the East of England had the lowest rate for drug misuse (37.2 per million).

ONS publication: Alcohol-specific deaths in the UK: registered in 2020 reports that in 2020, there were 8,974 deaths (14.0 per 100,000 people) from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK, an 18.6% increase compared with 2019 (7,565 deaths; 11.8 per 100,000 people) and the highest year-on-year increase since the data time series began in 2001.

Scotland

According National records of Scotland report Drug-related deaths in Scotland in 2022 In 2022 there were 1,051 deaths due to drug misuse in Scotland. This is 279 deaths fewer than in 2021 and the lowest number of drug misuse deaths since 2017. However the rate of drug misuse deaths is still much higher than in 1996 when the series began.

  • The change between 2021 and 2022 is the largest year on year decrease on record.
  • Despite this recent fall, drug misuse deaths are still much more common than they were in 2000. After adjusting for age, there were 3.7 times as many drug misuse deaths in 2022 as in 2000.
  • In 2022, males were twice as likely to have a drug misuse death as females. Most of the decrease in the past year was in males.
  • Since 2000, the average age of drug misuse deaths has increased from 32 to 45.
  • People in the most deprived areas of Scotland are almost 16 times as likely to die from drug misuse compared to people in the least deprived areas. The association of deprivation with drug misuse deaths is much greater than with other causes of death.
  • After adjusting for age, Glasgow City and Dundee City had the highest rates of drug misuse deaths while East Renfrewshire and Aberdeenshire had the lowest.
  • The most common types of drug implicated in drug misuse deaths in 2022 were opiates/opioids which were implicated in 82% of all deaths.
  • The majority (89%) of drug misuse deaths were classified as accidental poisonings, with only 7% classed as intentional self-poisonings.
  • The rate of drug poisoning deaths in Scotland was 2.7 times as high as the UK average in 2021 (the most recent year that data is available for the UK).

National Records of Scotland report in Alcohol-specific deaths 2021 there were 1,245 alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland in 2021, an increase of 5% (55 deaths) from 2020. The rate of mortality for alcohol-specific deaths fell between 2006 and 2012, from 28.5 to 18.4 deaths per 100,000 people. Since then it has generally risen, but did fall in 2019. Two thirds of alcohol-specific deaths were male.

Northern Ireland

According to the NISRA report Drug-Related and Drug-Misuse Deaths 2010-2020 published March 2022 there were 218 drug-related deaths registered in Northern Ireland in 2020. Over half (55.5%) of these deaths were of men aged 25-44. 

And again from the NISRA Alcohol specific deaths in Northern Ireland, 2020: The total number of alcohol-specific deaths registered in 2020 was 351. This was an increase of 15 from the previous year (336) and the highest since the start of the series, accounting for 2.0% of all deaths registered in 2020.

Volatile substances

According to the ONS publication: Deaths related to volatile substances, helium and nitrogen in England and Wales: 2001 to 2020 registrations, published in February 2022:

  • Between 2001 and 2020, there were 716 deaths related to volatile substances registered in England and Wales, with an average of 36 deaths each year.
  • There were 25 deaths related to volatile substances registered in 2020; this is the same as 2019 and has remained broadly stable over time.
  • Between 2001 and 2020, most deaths related to volatile substances registered were among males (77.9%).
  • Nitrous oxide was the third most mentioned substance on the death certificate after butane and propane, with 56 deaths registered between 2001 and 2020, and 45 of those having been registered since 2010.

Reducing drug related deaths

The Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce was set up in July 2019 by the Minister for Public Health and Sport, supported by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to develop a  programme of actions to meet Scotland’s unique drug deaths challenge, ensuring that the evidence of what would work most effectively is assessed and acted upon, and that stakeholders amongst the critical agencies involved in the challenge are engaged in the application of best practice. You can read their latest report (June 2021) here.

Updated January 2024