On publication of ONS’ data showing drug-poisoning-related deaths in England and Wales highest in 24 years of study, NHS SMPA’s Emily Finch talked to BBC Radio 4 about the challenges facing services.


The Office For National Statistics (ONS) today released statistics related to the number of registered deaths in England and Wales caused by drug poisoning or drug misuse. 

Key points from the ONS bulletin:

  • In England, 3756 people died from drug poisoning-related causes in 2017. This shows a slight increase on 2016 figures but still represents the highest rate recorded in the 24 years of study.

  • Deaths involving cocaine and fentanyl continued to rise in 2017 while deaths related to psychoactive substances (such as spice) halved.
  • Female mortality rates increased for the eighth consecutive year, to 42.9 deaths per million population, whereas male mortality rates decreased slightly in 2017 to 89.7. 
  • The North East of England has a much higher rate of drug-related deaths than any other area of the country.

NHS SMPA’s Emily Finch and The Loop’s Fiona Measham were invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning to discuss the challenges faced by substance misuse services. Emily started by saying: 

“I think the first thing we have to remember is that every death represents a huge loss for a family, loss of a son or daughter, parent or sibling, so this is really affecting people. We know that over the last 5 -10 years we’ve had about a 30% loss in funding for drug and alcohol treatment services and we think that’s probably resulted in services that are less skilled, and less able to engage the most complex people, and the people most complex to treat. This is in the context of knowing that being in treatment protects against death, so people who are actually in drug treatment are much less likely to die.  

However, there are other factors that also need to be taken into account:

“We have an ageing group of drug users, and for those that use opiates, many of those are now in their 40s and 50s, and are dying from a range of physical health problems as well as problems directly related to their drug misuse. And that’s certainly part of the picture.”

Fiona Measham, Director at The Loop, was asked if she had seen similar trends:

“Well the big concern for us in relation to recreational drug users is the bi-fold increase in Ecstasy deaths, and the threefold increase in cocaine related deaths and these are related to higher purity substances being sold but we are also seeing the contamination of traditional street drugs with an analogues of fentanyl and pentylone and only last week we were testing at a festival and we had significant concerns about pentylone being sold as MDMA and people were having psychotic episodes as a result.”

Fiona was then asked what action she would like to see from Government and health agencies to prevent this from happening. She commented:

“As Emily said, we need to increase funding to drug treatment services, to health and social care and also to policing. Because one of the things that’s very clear in relation to drug related deaths is that they were falling in 2010, and then there was a sharp U-turn and an increase from 2010 onwards and this has really been driven by a shift away from evidence-based harm reduction services, and towards a much more ideologically driven abstinence based recovery agenda.”

The Department of Health released a statement stating that they are “funding local authorities £16 billion over the current spending period to deliver the help, treatment and support that people need to live a drug-free life”. However, Emily pointed out that this represents “a very significant [funding] reduction, and behind that are significant skills deficits in the sector.” For example, “We know that there are very few doctors being trained, very few psychiatrists. That’s reflected in the number of people in, for instance, A&Es and GPs who know about substance misuse so generally speaking, the system is less and less fit for purpose in managing these highly complex problems.”

Emily finished the interview by commenting on the need for more work looking at the root causes of drug use and addiction: “we are aware that many of the other issues that are happening in society (such as a rise in homelessness) are going to affect how people respond to their drug use and the risk it poses for them”. 

Listen to the full interview on BBC Radio 4.