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NI drug deaths in males double in a decade

Rising proportion of drug-related deaths now involve prescription drugs, and multiple drug use

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 05 March 2019

The number of drug-related deaths among males in Northern Ireland (NI) has almost doubled over the past decade, official figures have revealed, although those in females have remained at the same level. The new report shows that most drug-related deaths in NI are linked to misuse of prescription medicines rather than illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, and that deprivation is strongly linked to drug deaths. Meanwhile the Scottish Affairs Committee has announced an inquiry into drug misuse in Scotland, to understand how the UK government can address the rise of drug-related deaths in Scotland.

Official statistics published yesterday by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) show that 136 of the 16,036 deaths registered in NI in 2017 were from drug-related causes – 60% more than a decade ago, although slightly lower than the record total of 144 in 2015; and they still account for less than 1% of total deaths registered in NI each year.


Almost three-quarters (74%) of drug-related deaths in 2017 were among males, in whom the rate has soared by 98% in just a decade; there were 35 drug-related deaths in females in 2017, the same number as in 2007. Well over a third (37%) of drug-related deaths occurred in 25-34 year olds, more than any other age group.

The report showed that most such deaths were recorded as being linked to multiple drug use – 46% of death certificates listed at least three drugs, compared with 30% of certificates that listed a single drug. It also revealed that:

  • 81% of drug-related deaths were classed as drug-misuse deaths in 2017, compared with 56% in 2007.
  • In 2017 four times more deaths listed pregabalin on the death certificate (not mentioned at all until 2013), with numbers increasing from nine in 2016 to 33 in 2017.
  • 40% of all drug-related deaths in 2017 involved diazepam, compared with 24% in 2007.
  • People living in the most deprived areas of NI are four times more likely to die from a drug-related death than those in the least deprived areas.

Detective superintendent Bobby Singleton, chair of the Organised Crime Task Force’s drugs sub-group, said the harm and hurt caused by drug misuse are wide-ranging and impact people’s lives at every level. He commented: “These official statistics provide evidence that… Northern Ireland has a growing problem with potentially fatal drug misuse.

“When we talk about drug misuse and related deaths people often assume that we must mean illicit drugs like heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. Whilst these drugs cause serious harm and can be fatal, the majority of deaths in Northern Ireland are due to the misuse of a variety of prescription medicines, often with alcohol and illicit drugs.”

Also yesterday, the Scottish Affairs Committee launched its inquiry into drug misuse in Scotland, pointing out that problem drug-use is disproportionately higher in Scotland compared with England and other European countries. Drugs-related deaths have increased consistently – rising from 224 in 1997 to 934 in 2017 – with opioid drugs, such as heroin, fentanyl and morphine, involved in 89% of cases. There is also a particularly strong link between problem drug use and poverty and deprivation in Scotland.

The Committee will investigate what is driving the increase in drug-related deaths, before considering whether the Scottish government has sufficient powers to implement the drug treatment or prevention strategies that are needed to deal effectively with emerging trends in problem drug use in Scotland. It will also consider how well the UK and Scottish governments work together to tackle drugs misuse in Scotland, and whether the UK government could be doing more to address these issues.

Committee chair Pete Wishart MP said at the inquiry’s launch: “Scotland’s drug problem is widely known, but the drivers behind it and the reality of drugs users’ day-to-day lives remain largely hidden. The UK government, which is responsible for drug legislation, cannot turn a blind eye to the escalating drug problem in Scotland. My Committee’s inquiry will uncover the truth behind drug misuse in Scotland; why drug-related deaths are on the rise, and how the UK and Scottish government should work together to combat this worrying trend.”

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