The 'recreational' drug is killing more people each year - and it destroyed one of Gordon Ramsay's star chefs

Deaths from cocaine-related overdoses have reached record levels, with an increase of nearly 50 per cent in the numbers of people dying from abuse of the class A drug.

New figures released by the Government reveal that deaths rose from 96 in 2001 to 139 in 2002, the biggest year-on-year rise for five years. Since 1998, when there were only 66 recorded fatalities, deaths from cocaine poisoning have more than doubled.

The findings, based on research from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), may be a fraction of the actual number of deaths caused by cocaine. Many deaths go unreported because doctors in accident and emergency departments do not carry out routine tests for the drug when patients are admitted with chest pains. Figures are not yet available for 2003 but experts predict the rise in deaths will be even higher.

The increase in cocaine abuse contrasts starkly with the fall in deaths among heroin users and a levelling off in the numbers of people dying from ecstasy pills.

Experts say the ONS figures for cocaine deaths are an underestimate of the drug's role in causing strokes and heart attacks. Some studies have suggested that cocaine can be a factor in suicides because it causes depression by depleting the brain's serotonin levels.

The ONS figures include users of crack cocaine - sold as rocks - as well as those who snort the drug as a powder. There are currently an estimated 475,000 powder cocaine addicts in Britain, and a further 200,000 who take crack cocaine.

Cocaine has been seen as the drug of choice for well-paid advertising executives, footballers and people in the media. A string of celebrities have admitted to using the drug, including Danniella Westbrook, the former EastEnders actress, and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

Despite its image as a "clean" drug, cocaine has been blamed for a rise in crime and anti-social behaviour. Crack cocaine is the more addictivebut the powder form has been linked to hepatitis C.

This is because cocaine addicts get nosebleeds from blowing their noses violently to increase the impact of the drug. Traces of contaminated blood are then passed to others on the straws shared to snort cocaine.

There is also medical evidence that cocaine causes the heart to age prematurely and leads to the rupture of blood vessels. Another concern is the lethal cocktail of cocaine and ecstasy followed by Viagra, which makes the heart race dangerously.

Police and drug action teams say that cocaine is used across a wider range of social classes than any other drug. This is backed up by Home Office research, which shows that one person in 20 aged 16 to 24 has used cocaine or crack. There is anecdotal evidence that some dealers are agreeing to provide drugs such as heroin only if clients also buy crack.

John Henry, professor of medicine at Imperial College London and former director of the National Poisons Unit, has carried out research showing that around one in three men admitted to A&E departments with chest pains has tested positive for cocaine. This finding is based on tests carried out on urine samples taken from 450 men admitted to one London hospital. Professor Henry, one of Britain's leading cocaine experts, describes the ONS figures as a "massive underestimate".

"If you don't suspect drugs then you don't test," said Professor Henry. "Yet there has been a staggering leap in cocaine use. There needs to be a proper awareness campaign."

Aidan Gray, the national co-ordinator of Coca, an organisation that supports counsellors working with crack users, said the public needed to be made more aware of the dangers of the drug.

"The whole issue of crack-and cocaine-related deaths needs to be taken much more seriously," Mr Gray said. "It's wrongly portrayed as a young, sexy drug. The reality is that the purer it gets, the worse it becomes."

Case study: David Dempsey

By Annabel Fallon

David Dempsey was one of the rising stars of the British restaurant scene. At 31, the father of two was head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and highly rated throughout the industry. But his glittering career came to a terrible end when he became a casualty of cocaine abuse.

Last May, Mr Dempsey fell 50 feet to his death from the roof of a Chelsea flat. The coroner's verdict was accidental death from multiple injuries.

Mr Dempsey, who reportedly told colleagues he had done "a bit of charlie earlier", had been seen smashing windows and jumping between roofs around 11pm, shortly before the accident.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday yesterday, Mr Ramsay said he had been in no doubt his former employee had died as a direct result of cocaine use.

"I have no reason to doubt an independent inquiry into his death," Mr Ramsay said. "I understand it was a bitter experience for his family, but from the report, I think it is pretty obvious he had taken cocaine."

Abuse of the drug is rife in the restaurant business, Mr Ramsay said. "Unfortunately, it's part of the image that people have of chefs today; the whole rock'n'roll persona, which is ridiculous," he said. "It's lazy to think that cocaine should be part of our job. At the end of the day, we cook for a living - we are not stars."

While the investigation into Mr Dempsey's death found him to be in a state of "excited delirium" brought on by cocaine, his mother still denies that her son ever used the drug.

Eileen Dempsey told the IoS: "David was not a drug user and never had been. None of his friends think he was using drugs, and neither do I. If David had done cocaine earlier, why did it take until 11 at night for it to take effect?"

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