Codeine-related deaths spike by almost 25 per cent in year

·4-min read
Pills and tablets - Loic Venance
Pills and tablets - Loic Venance

Codeine-related deaths have increased by almost 25 per cent in the past year to a record high, official figures show.

Data released on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 212 people died of drug poisoning from codeine in 2020.

This is up from 167 in 2019, 169 in 2018 and 156 in 2017. It is the highest number of deaths from the drug in a calendar year since records began in 1993.

The 2020 figure is more than double the number from 10 years ago, when 91 people died from codeine.

Ian Hamilton, a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York, said: “It is sad to see this rise in deaths due to codeine, as with other drugs, most people die as a result of combining drugs either to achieve a particular effect or to counter the effect of one drug by taking another.

“The problem is that codeine can cause confusion so it can be difficult to remember how much of it you have taken. Some will have accidently taken more of the drug than they realised and overdosed as a consequence.

“It is also not uncommon, despite the warnings, for people to drink alcohol while taking codeine. The combined effect can seriously hamper breathing and potentially be fatal.”

He believes the internet and unregulated dark web marketplaces have made the illegal sale of codeine easier and more accessible, fuelling addiction.

“Increasing use of the dark net to source painkillers which are restricted in the UK makes it relatively easy for people to source drugs like codeine without having to leave their house. Suppliers compete to deliver these pills at low prices and in discrete packaging.

“These suppliers won't place any limits on how many pills an individual orders, providing they can pay for them.

“This has undoubtedly contributed to the rising problem many people are having with use of non-medical prescription drugs.”

The data from ONS reveal the total number of drug deaths – for all substances – reached an all-time high in 2020, with 4,561 people dying.

Two thirds of these were linked to drug misuse, the ONS said. Men accounted for three quarters of drug misuse deaths.

Half of all drug deaths were due to opiates, and heroin and morphine were the biggest contributors, killing 1,337 people last year.

The ONS said the number of deaths annually from heroin and morphine were increasing despite the number of new addicts falling.

“This indicates higher rates of death among existing long-term drug users,” it said.

One possible explanation, the ONS said, was an ageing cohort of drug users who were long-term addicts and therefore are “increasingly susceptible to a fatal overdose”. However, some experts refute this explanation.

“There are at least two problems with this,” Prof Alex Stevens, professor in criminal justice at the University of Kent, told The Telegraph.

“One is that these deaths are not rising in London, so there must be something more complex going on. The other is that we have known for years that a cohort with high levels of risk was growing older and more vulnerable.

“Instead of investing in services that would keep them alive, this funding has been cut.

“For example, the main recommendation of the 2016 ACMD report was at least to maintain investment in opioid substitution therapy (the treatment which has the greatest evidence for saving these lives). Instead, the Government continued to cut this funding.”

Other opiates, such as methadone and tramadol, accounted for 516 and 203 deaths, respectively.

Deaths linked to paracetamol also soared to the highest level in more than a decade, with the over-the-counter drugs killing 235 people.

Cocaine deaths also reach a record high, with 777 linked fatalities, accounting for one in six of all drug deaths.

People born between 1970 and 1979, and therefore now in their mid to late 40s, suffered the highest rate of drug misuse deaths. People of this era have consistently been the biggest source of drug deaths for the past 25 years.

James Nicholls, the chief executive of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said: “These grim drug death statistics are a clear signal that an urgent change of course is needed in UK drug policy.

“Evidence from around the world points to interventions that can help reduce drug deaths, but these have been repeatedly rejected by governments who remain obsessed by tired mantras about more enforcement and police-led crack downs.

“After decades of failure, they must now take responsibility for a crisis that has unfolded on their watch.”

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