Target missed for cutting deaths from drug abuse

The government has missed its target on cutting deaths from drug abuse, according to figures published yesterday.

The report shows a big surge in the numbers of predominantly young people who have died since 2003 from drug abuse. Most of the deaths were a result of heroin, morphine or methadone addiction, but the figures show that cocaine-fuelled deaths have soared by 67% (88 to 147) and ecstasy by 85% (26 to 48).

The UK has the highest number of drug users of any country in Europe. The government's aim, set out in its 2002 drugs strategy and backed with a heavy programme of investment, was to reduce drug-related deaths by 20% between 1999 and 2004. The Office for National Statistics figures, published in its health statistics quarterly bulletin, show that deaths did come down, but by only 9% overall, following a sharp rise in 2003.

Death rates were highest among young adults, according to the ONS. "An increase in mortality rates within this group appears to have been the driver behind rising mortality trends during the 1990s," its bulletin says.

A Department of Health spokesman claimed that the glass was half-full, rather than half-empty. "We are pleased that fewer people are dying from drug misuse than in 1999, although there is clearly more work to be done," he said.

Intensified measures are being taken to try to check the upward swing of deaths in young men between 2003 and 2004. The Drugs Related Deaths Steering Group had been reconvened, he said. Its experts would report in the autumn "with a plan of action on how to keep the numbers of drug-related deaths falling at an even faster rate. Another measure of the government's commitment to tackling the harm caused by drug misuse is the 30% increase in funding for drug action teams, which was announced in June."

Harry Shapiro of DrugScope said that the original targets for reducing deaths might have been more aspirational than realistic, but added that the rise in stimulants such as cocaine and ecstasy may not have been anticipated. The death rate target would have been primarily focused on opiate addicts, because once they get into treatment they are able to access information and help on harm reduction, which keeps them safer.

"What has skewed it is the substantial rise in the amount of cocaine use which isn't a target of government treatment interventions," he said. "It is a lot harder to attract cocaine users into treatment. A number of people have probably not got a dependence or addiction problem, but it doesn't mean they are not at equal risk."

The government might need to look at campaigns to keep the occasional drug user safer, he said. "The situation could possibly become more acute if there is a new generation of young people coming into the drug and music scene who are more likely to go down the drug route rather than the alcohol route."

The ONS figures show that drug misuse was the third most common cause of death among young people after traffic accidents and suicide.

In 2004, 565 young men and 123 young women aged 15 to 24 died because of drugs - most often addiction but also through accidental poisoning.

In spite of the rise in cocaine, ecstasy and codeine deaths, heroin and morphine were still the biggest killers (48%), followed by methadone (22%), and benzodiazepines such as valium and librium (15%).

The ONS statistics also show that the suicide rate has continued to fall in men since a peak in 1998 and remains stable in women. There are an average 6,000 suicides a year. The highest rate is in men aged 15-44, while in women they are highest among the over 75 age group. Suicide is more likely in deprived areas.

Scotland has significantly higher rates of suicide than the rest of the UK, at 30 per 100,000 men compared with 22.4 in Wales, 18.3 in Northern Ireland and 16.7 in England. Among women, the rates are 10 per 100,000 in Scotland, 6 in Wales, 5.6 in Northern Ireland and 5.4 in England.

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