Helium and barbiturates, two drugs increasingly used to commit suicide, contributed to more deaths than ecstasy, cannabis and GHB last year.
Campaigners blame the proliferation of "how to" suicide websites for a rise in deaths linked to the substances. Anti-suicide group Papyrus last night called for greater regulation of sites that incite people to take their own lives using helium or barbiturates.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures released yesterday showed that the number of deaths in which barbiturates were implicated rose from six in 2007 to 37 last year. This is despite the number of prescriptions for the drugs, a type of depressant on which it is possible to overdose, falling by a half.
The number of deaths involving the inert gas helium also went from two to 42 over the same period.
The report, released yesterday, noted that "almost all" of the deaths related to the two were suicides.
"It is as insidious to incite people to kill themselves using a site like this as it is to groom a child for sex," said the chair of Papyrus's board of trustees, Stephen Habgood, whose son committed suicide using helium in March 2009.
"We have known about these sites for some time and are lobbying the Government to take action and the media not to give them extensive coverage. But the Government seems to feel that the current legislation, which makes it illegal to encourage suicide, is enough. I've approached companies which sell these canisters and asked them if they realise they can be used in suicide – most of the time, they don't."
In its report, the ONS wrote: "Deaths involving two substances – barbiturates and helium – have increased consistently over the last five years.… Although the number of deaths involving these substances is still relatively small, the large increases may be of particular interest to suicide-prevention researchers, as almost all of these deaths were suicides."
Mr Habgood said that "the ONS stats are grossly misleading" due to the way they are collected. He cited a paper by David Gunnell, a professor of epidemiology, Keith Hawton, a professor of psychiatry and Nav Kapur, a professor of psychiatry and population health, which found an increase in the number of narrative verdicts.
He said the number of suicides could be 20 per cent higher than ONS figures show because of coroners' reluctance to find deaths to be suicide.
The ONS report shows that there were seven cannabis-related deaths last year and ecstasy was linked to 13 deaths. The number of deaths related to cocaine use fell from 196 in 2007 to 112 last year, having risen to as many as 235 in that period.
Britons are learning to live the good life
People in the UK are staying healthy for longer, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. Healthy life expectancy (HLE) – the proportion of life spent in good health – rose nationally by more than two years in the period 2008-2010, but in Scotland and Northern Ireland it declined.
In England, a boy born in 2008-2010 has a life expectancy of 78, with 64 healthy years; but a boy born in Scotland in the same period has a life expectancy of 76, with 60 healthy years, according to the data.