300 deaths every year linked to drug use

THE true level of drug-related deaths was revealed for the first time yesterday.

A total of 2,442 people have lost their lives either directly or indirectly from drugs between 1998 and 2005 — on average about 300 people every year.

Over the eight years, a total of 184 teenagers have died, including 16 aged under 15. Solvents account for 24 of these deaths, including 10 under the age of 15.

Opiates, including heroin, account for most direct drug-related deaths.

The drug most involved in direct deaths was a group of tranquillisers called benzodiazepines (555 deaths).

While cocaine only accounts for 6% of direct drug-related deaths, the number has jumped almost six-fold, from five in 1998 to 34 in 2005.

The figures published yesterday include, for the first time, the number of deaths indirectly caused by drugs.

Of the 2,442 deaths, 1,553 were directly caused by drugs (known as poisonings), while 889 were indirectly due to drugs (non-poisonings).

Indirect causes of death include infection and illnesses, suicide and risky or dangerous behaviour under the influence of drugs.

The National Drug-Related Deaths Index, compiled by the Health Research Board, shows:

* Total number of deaths rose from 242 in 1998 to 400 in 2005 (up 65%).

* Poisonings increased from 178 to 232 (a rise of 30%).

* Non-poisonings jumped from 64 to 168 (up 162%).

Males accounted for two-thirds of poisonings and the average age of death was 38.

Almost 560 (36%) of poisonings were among people aged under 29, including 114 teenagers. Almost 100 people aged over 65 died from poisoning.

Of the poisonings, 46% were caused by a single drug, while 54% were due to more than one drug (polysubstances).

Illegal drugs involved in deaths include heroin, 308 cases (20%); methadone, 301 (19%), other opiates, 391 (23%); cocaine, 100 (6%) and ecstasy, 69 (4%).

Legal drugs involved in deaths include benzodiazepines, 555 (30%); alcohol, 380 (25%); anti-depressants, 337 (19%) and other prescription drugs (16%).

Alcohol is only recorded when it contributes to polysubstance deaths, and is a factor in 25% of overall cases. Solvents accounted for 33 deaths (2%), but most were young people.

The figures show deaths from poisonings have been higher outside Dublin since 2003.

The biggest rises are in the east coast, the mid-west, north-west and south-east.

In relation to non-poisonings, males accounted for 84% of all deaths.

Of the 889 deaths, 234 (26%) were under the age of 24, including 70 teenagers.

Dublin had almost twice the number of deaths than outside Dublin.

Concluding, the report said heroin and other opiates, including methadone, were mainly responsible for deaths by poisoning.

It said polysubstance abuse was a big problem and highlighted the danger from prescription and over-the-counter medication. “Specifically, benzodiazepines, often in conjunction with an illicit substance, have been implicated in more deaths than any other drug.”

It said deaths were mainly in the 20 to 40 age group, with deaths due to solvents the exception, in which 70% of victims were aged 19 years or under.

The report also said the rise in poisonings outside Dublin showed drug use was a nationwide issue.

At yesterday’s launch the head of the Alcohol and Drug Research Unit Dr Jean Long said she hoped the findings would contribute to the National Drugs Strategy.

However, she said recent steps to tackle aspects of the drugs problem had been effective despite the rising death toll.

“We have expanded our treatment services over the last seven or eight years, we have increased our methadone places by something like 1,240 places, so we do have quite a good response.

“Of course there is always more we can do and there are always better things that we can do and we are always finding evidence and new ways of practising.”

Instead, she admitted that alcohol was still a big factor in drug-related deaths, which she said was “quite serious”.

“We can say that alcohol is implicated both in cases that are treated and in cases that people die.

“It is our main problem drug.”

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