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 the ONS publication: Deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales: 2017 registrations, published in August 2018

  • There were 3,756 deaths relating to drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2017, a rate of 66.1 deaths per 1 million population, and similar to levels seen in 2016.
  • Two-thirds of drug-related deaths were related to drug misuse, accounting for 43.7 deaths per 1 million in 2017.
  • Males’ mortality rate decreased from 91.4 deaths per 1 million population in 2016 to 89.6 in 2017, while the female rate increased for the eighth consecutive year to 42.9 deaths per 1 million population; neither changes were significant.
  • The North East had a significantly higher rate of deaths relating to drug-misuse than all other English regions; London had a significantly lower rate.
  • Deaths involving cocaine and fentanyl continued to rise while deaths related to new psychoactive substances halved in 2017.


According to drug related deaths statistics published in Scotland in 2017: Drug-related Deaths in Scotland in 2016:

Based on the definition used for these statistics, 867 drug-related deaths were registered in Scotland in 2016, 161 (23%) more than in 2015. This was the largest
number ever recorded, and 446 (106%) higher than the figure for 2006, which was 421.

  • Males accounted for 68% of the drug-related deaths in 2016
  • In 2016, there were 327 drug-related deaths of people aged 35-44 (38% of all drug-related deaths), 213 in the 45-54 age-group (25%), and 199 drug-related deaths of 25-34 year olds (23%). There were 42 drug-related deaths at ages 15-24 (5%), and 66 of 55-64 year olds (8%)

Volatile substances

Deaths related to volatile substances and helium in Great Britain: 2001 to 2016 registration, ONS, March 2018

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 August 2018