Tuesday, June 8, 2010

UK 2004 How many people die from using drugs?

How many people die from using drugs?

The straight answer is that we do not know exactly how many drug-related deaths there are in the UK. This is because:

There is not one organisation that collects information about drug-related deaths, for all of the UK.

There is no one definition of what we mean by drug-related deaths. For example, it 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

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:


It is estimated that each year in the U.K. over 120,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases, particularly from cancer, respiratory diseases and heart disease. [1]


Estimates of annual alcohol-related deaths in England and Wales vary from 5,000 to 40,000. This includes deaths from cirrhosis of the liver and other health problems from long-term drinking, deliberate and accidental overdose, traffic deaths, fatal accidents while drunk etc. [2]


A national register of solvent-related deaths recorded 63 deaths associated with volatile substance abuse in 2001. This number is similar to previous years, and deaths have remained stable at 75 per year since a peak of 152 in 1990.[3]


Deaths associated with different illegal drugs are also difficult to judge accurately. One exception is ecstasy with over 200 ecstasy-related deaths being reported from 1987 to the present day. [4]


Deaths from AIDS among injecting drug users who have contracted HIV by sharing injecting equipment are also difficult to judge exactly. However, by March 1999 in the UK almost 3,500 drug injectors had tested positive for HIV and over 1,000 had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.

Other Drugs

In relation to the whole range of problems which can happen to those who use drugs, death is by far the least likely outcome, but one which, not surprisingly, attracts most attention and causes most concern. Like all data about illegal drug use, information about deaths comes from a variety of sources that combine to present a patchy and incomplete picture. Hence this is a highly simplifed overview of what we know about deaths from drug use and how these compare to deaths caused by alcohol and tobacco.
Sources of data

Data is held by The Office of National Statistics (ONS) and the General Register Offices (GRO) for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Data is also collected by the national programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (np-SAD), based within the Department of Addictive Behaviour and Psychological Medicine at St George's Hospital Medical School (SGHMS), London. It was set up initially to track and monitor the deaths of drug addicts who had been notified to the Home Office. St George's Hospital Medical School also collate the annual survey of solvent deaths. Individual researchers and/or agencies may also collect data on an ad hoc basis, eg, DrugScope has been informally tracking ecstasy deaths since 1989.

ONS figures for drug related deaths in England and Wales for 1993 was about 860 deaths rising to just over 1,620 in 2001. (In recent years an additional 140-175 drug-related deaths have been reported each year in Scotland). These figures include accidental and deliberate overdose with medicines (excluding paracetamol which is related to roughly 1000 deaths a year. Most of which suicide). However, the most recent statistics show that deaths involving drugs of misuse have dropped to 1565 in 2002 although the number of deaths involving specific drugs like cocaine and amphetamines (including ecstasy) have risen over the last 10 years.

With many of these deaths people had also been using other drugs and indeed may not have died if they had not been taking more than one drug. [4]

England and Wales

The following represent the ONS data of the total number of deaths from drug use involving the following drugs in England and Wales from 1997 to 2001 (excluding suicides and undetermined poisonings), which vary as indicated. The figures are based on the International Classification of Diseases, 9th revision - ICD 9 (from 2001, cause of death is coded to ICD-10). No differentiation is made as to whether the underlying cause of death was drug dependence, accidental poisoning/overdose, related to the drug use or whether one or more drug was implicated - resulting possibly in some double-counting.

Table 1 Drug-related deaths in England and Wales 1997 to 2002[4]








361 (UK)

Opiates (heroin, morphine & methadone)



25,000 - 200,000 approx.


half a million approx (UK - [1] )
Table 2

Number of deaths England and Wales in 2001 and 2002 (substance is mentioned on the death certificate) [4]






All Amphetamines







Opiates (heroin, morphine & methadone)






All deaths




Scotland uses a slightly different coding system based roughly on ICD 10. Data is also collected on people who have died with a known or suspected drug addiction.

Table 3

Drug-related deaths in Scotland 1996 to 2002 [5]








361 (UK)

Opiates (heroin, morphine & methadone)


[1] ASH (2003) Fact Sheet No.2: Smoking Statistics: illness and death

[2] Department of Health (2001) Statistical bulletin: statistics on alcohol - England 1978 onwards, HMSO, London.

[3] Field-Smith M.E. et.al. (2003) Trends in death associated with abuse of volatile substances 1971-2001. St George's Hospital Medical School, London.

[4]ONS, Deaths related to drug poisoning: England and Wales, 1993-2000. Health Statistic Quarterly, Spring 2002 View Report and ONS, Deaths related to drug poisoning: England and Wales, 1997-2001. Health Statistic Quarterly 17, Spring 2003. View Report and ONS, Deaths related to drug poisoning: England and Wales, 1998-2002. Health Statistic Quarterly 21, Spring 2004. View Report

[5] GRO Scotland (2003) Drug-Related Deaths in Scotland in 2002. View Report

Updated March 2004