The record number of drug deaths in England and Wales cannot be stopped without tackling poverty, experts have told VICE World News.
New Office of National Statistics (ONS) data on drug deaths in England and Wales show that people living in deprived areas are now almost six times more likely to die from drugs than those living in the wealthiest areas. This disparity has accelerated over the last 10 years, when those in deprived areas were four times more likely to die from drugs, and is likely to further widen due to the impact of worsening social conditions and inequality due to the pandemic.
Drug-related deaths in England and Wales, as they have in Scotland, have reached record levels. Of the nearly 3,000 drug deaths certified last year in England and Wales (of which most would have occurred in 2019 and before lockdown in 2020), heroin remains the biggest killer, although deaths involving cocaine, benzos and pregabalin continue to rocket.
It is no coincidence that the drug death capital of England and Wales, with a rate of 22.1 deaths per 100,000 people, is the Lancashire seaside resort of Blackpool – a town that is also the most deprived local authority in England.
Blackpool has a similar drug death rate to Scotland, a country with the highest rate in Europe, where Glasgow has a rate of 30.8, more than six times the average for England and Wales.
Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, both cities in the north east of England, have the next highest drug death rates. Both places are in the top ten most deprived local authorities in the country. The ONS data found that people living in the north east are more than three times as likely to die from drugs than those in London.
Drug death rates are speeding up in the worst affected parts of Britain, coinciding with the government’s introduction of austerity measures in 2011. In Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Barrow-in-Furness and Stoke-on-Trent the data reveals that rates have either doubled or tripled in the last 10 years compared to a national increase over the same period of around 50 percent.
“For many people drug use is a reaction to their environment, so it’s no surprise that drug-related deaths are highest in the most deprived areas of the country,” said Jon Murray, executive director of services in England at drug charity With You.
“Issues such as rising homelessness, poor mental health and a lack of economic opportunities all lead to people using drugs, and for many, these challenges have become worse due to the pandemic.”
In her independent review of Britain’s drugs issue, commissioned by the Home Office and published last month, Dame Carol Black revealed that just under half of all deaths of people who die while they are in drug treatment occur in communities in the most deprived parts of the country. Her report, which called on the government for an extra £500 million in funding for tackling addiction “or face the consequences”, warned that a post-pandemic recession would further drive trends in drug use and deaths “in the wrong direction”.
Deprived areas develop specific drug problems, according to Dan Lewer, a public health registrar specialising in drugs at University College London. “The type of drug use that is most likely to lead to a fatal overdose, such as long-term use of opiates such as heroin in combination with other drugs like benzodiazepines, is closely associated with poverty, deprivation, and adversity in childhood,” he said.
Danny Ahmed, clinical director of Middlesbrough’s heroin assisted therapy scheme, which gives supervised diamorphine injections to heroin users in order to help stem the rise in overdoses in the city, said people living there have reduced opportunities in life and so are more susceptible to getting drug problems.
“The people I see are the victims of deprivation. It impacts every aspect of their lives, such as poor diet, less exercise and boredom. Access to support can be limited and hard to navigate,” said Ahmed. “They are isolated, they live in areas where community spirit is broken and where there is little hope life can be different. By taking drugs such as heroin they are trying to escape the challenges of the world they grew up in. But they age at an accelerated rate, so the drugs that once numbed the pain of deprivation eventually become the drugs that kill them.”
If drug deaths, and drug crime too, are so closely tied into such huge structural inequalities in British society, is there any hope that relatively small scale changes in drug policy can help stem the rising number of poverty related drug deaths?
“Viewed in this context, the scale of the challenge in reducing drug related deaths is stark,” said Harry Sumnall, professor of substance use at Liverpool John Moores University. “Hoping that any particular drug policy or intervention is going to provide the answer is unrealistic. We absolutely need better policy, and access to high quality and well-funded harm reduction and treatment. But in the long term, the only way we're going to get on top of this issue is addressing the big societal challenges of inequality and deprivation.”