Health, Latest News | Posted: Thursday, October 15th, 2020 at 11:59 am | return to news

Drug deaths in England and Wales highest since records began

The number of deaths related to drug poisoning last year has reached its highest level since records began back in 1993.

Nuno Albuquerque “more people are dying from drugs that can be prescribed by their GPs"
Nuno Albuquerque “more people are dying from drugs that can be prescribed by their GPs"

The latest numbers were revealed in a report released yesterday (14 October) by the Office for National Statistics.

In England and Wales in 2019, a total of 4,393 drug related deaths were registered, equivalent to an age-standardised mortality rate of 76.7 deaths per million people.

Commenting on the release, Ben Humberstone, deputy director of Health Analysis and Life Events at the ONS said, “The number of deaths due to drug poisoning registered in 2019 remains at a similar level to 2018. Almost half of all drug related deaths involved opiates such as heroin and morphine. However, cocaine deaths rose for the eighth consecutive year to their highest level. The data in this release relate to deaths registered in 2019 and therefore do not cover deaths that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Detailed analysis of the ONS data by drug addiction treatment experts UKAT (UK Addiction Treatment Centres) has compared the statistics over the last 10 years. The result shows a 52% rise in drug poisoning deaths in the last 10 years and a 17% rise in just three years.

Although the majority of deaths were recorded as accidental, UKAT’s analysis reveals that 1 in 5 of all drug poisoning deaths in 2019 were intentional.

Males accounted for two-thirds (or 2,968) of drug poisoning deaths last year. A proportion of men who died (3%) suffered from a mental and behavioural disorder due to drug use.

The North East had a statistically significantly higher rate of deaths relating to drug misuse than all other English regions: 95 deaths per million people. The East of England had the lowest rate: 33.6 deaths per million people. The ONS report marks a north-south divide.

According to UKAT’s analysis, the report also shows that working age people living in the most deprived areas of Wales have significantly higher mortality rates from drug poisoning. People aged between 40 and 49 years had the highest age-specific rate of drug poisoning (374.3 deaths per million), nearly seven times higher than the rate in the least deprived quintile (53.8 deaths per million).

Almost half (49.2%) of all drug related deaths involved opiates such as heroin and morphine.

Prescribed opioids such as tramadol, codeine, dihydrocodeine accounted for 10% (470) of all drug related deaths last year according to UKAT’s analysis; drugs prescribed to patients by their GPs.

Similarly, antidepressants, also prescribed by GPs, also account for 10% of all drug deaths last year (443), up by 16% in just 9 years (from 393).

In 2019, there were 140 deaths from the drug Zopiclone – used to treat insomnia, a figure which has risen from just 79 deaths a decade ago.

Benzodiazepines, sometimes called “benzos”, are a class of psychoactive drugs used to sedate the body and help treat anxiety. Familiar drugs within the benzo family include Valium and Xanax. UKAT’s analysis of yesterday’s report reveals that deaths from benzodiazepines accounted for 9% of all dug deaths last year, up from 5% ten years ago.

Collectively, UKAT’s analysis of the ONS data shows that for the types of drugs that can be prescribed by GPs, the death count in 2019 stood at 1,805; 40% of all drug deaths registered last year. This is significantly higher than the collective number of deaths from the same drugs 10 years ago, 1,360.

Nuno Albuquerque, Group Treatment lead for the drug addiction treatment experts UKAT ( said, “These ONS figures are saddening but unsurprising and clearly show, in black and white, that the problem isn’t going away, and it’s not getting any better. The figures show that more and more people are dying from drugs that can be prescribed by their GPs, proving that the drug problem in this country is not just one of illegal substance misuse.”

UKAT’s analysis also shows that the number of deaths from illegal drugs such as cannabis in 2019 are the highest on record at 31 deaths last year, compared to 22 in 2018 and just 7 in 2011- a rise of over 300% in eight years.

The most concerning rise, says UKAT, is for drugs relating to cocaine. Cocaine deaths rose for the eighth consecutive year to their highest level – accounting for 16% of all deaths last year and the UKAT analysis further shows that drug poisoning deaths involving cocaine increased 26.5% for females and 7.7% for males between 2018 and 2019.

“We must remember that these aren’t just numbers; they’re someone’s mother, father, child or friend and we can’t stress enough the value of investing in the treatment of addiction,” said Nuno Albuquerque. “2020 has proven to be a difficult year for many. Some will undoubtedly turn to misusing drugs as a coping mechanism. Our fear is that these figures could tip off the scale in next year’s report unless councils take proactive, preventative action today in the investment of drug and alcohol treatment services in order to save lives.

“We’ve already highlighted the drastic reduction in budget cuts to substance misuse services every year since 2013 and unfortunately, these figures now show the impact this is having on the most vulnerable people living in society. It is not a coincidence.”

Help, information and support for drug misuse can be found at

The ONS report can be found at

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