Social Trends: Big increase in deaths of drug users

Drug use, food and crime
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The Independent Online
NEW OFFICIAL figures show that drugs are responsible for more than 2,100 deaths each year, three times as many as previous years.

The total gives a more realistic picture of the impact of drugs on British society, and it is based on a broader definition, which includes fatal accidents involving drug users. Earlier surveys had excluded deaths due to indirect or long-term effects of drugs, such as Aids or road traffic accidents.

The figures are published today in Social Trends, an annual snapshot of life in Britain produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It reports that officials from the Home Office and ONS have been working together to "reach a closer approximation of the number of deaths due to drug misuse".

The new definition records that 1,223 people in England and Wales died in 1997 from drug-related accidents, 474 from drug-related suicides and 418 where the cause of death was undetermined but where drugs were involved.

Social Trends reports that 61 British motorists, passengers and pedestrians killed in road accidents in 1997 tested positive for illegal drugs and 27 for medicinal drugs. A further 97 were over the legal limit for alcohol.

Figures for drug-related deaths in England and Wales have remained at about 700 per year since 1994, with the total for Scotland about 120.

Social Trends includes a special report, compiled by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, giving an over-view of the extent and consequences of drug use in Britain.

The report includes statistics demonstrating the widespread use of illicit substances, particularly among the younger population.

Home Office research shows that 57 per cent of men between 20 and 24 have tried illegal drugs and more than half of the total number of people arrested by police in Manchester, London and Cambridge tested positive for cannabis.

Police seizures of cannabis increased seven-fold between 1991 and 1996. The report also notes a "worrying" increase in seizures of heroin.

It concludes that despite the efforts of researchers there are still serious gaps in our knowledge of the extent of drug use in Britain.

The report states: "We cannot describe adequately those who are not receiving treatment, nor can we show how drugs are impacting on communities. We cannot say much about the degree to which drugs are available on our streets."

Last night Harry Shapiro, spokesman for the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence, said: "We must realise that this wider definition of drug-misuse related deaths includes people who would not normally be regarded as drug-users, but who use drugs, including paracetamol, as a vehicle for suicide."

He pointed out that even with the wider definition of drug-related deaths, the figure was only a fraction of the 140,000 people who died from tobacco and alcohol misuse each year.

He said: "What we really need to know is how many people are reporting for treatment at accident and emergency departments. Who are the people being admitted, under what conditions and after using what drugs?"

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