There were 4,359 deaths from drug poisoning in England and Wales in 2018 – the highest number since records began in 1993, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said.

The figure also includes a record-breaking annual increase of 16% (603 deaths) since 2017, and cocaine-related deaths reaching their highest ever level, having doubled during the previous three years.

Drug misuse was found to be the cause of the majority of drug poisoning deaths, which was broken down into accidental poisonings and intentional self-poisonings.

Mental or behavioural disorders as a result of drug use or assault involving drugs made up the remaining number of deaths.

Men made up the majority of overall deaths (2,984), while women accounted for around a third (1,375).

They were also more likely to die from accidental poisoning (80%) in comparison to women (67%), whereas women were more likely to die from intentional self-poisoning (30%) than men (16%).

These figures account for accidents, suicides, and medical complications, and include a variation of controlled and non-controlled medications.

There was also a high geographical north-south divide in the number of deaths per million people, with the North East recording a significantly higher drug misuse rate compared to other regions.

High misuse rates were also reported in the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and Wales, while southern areas, including London, recorded the lowest.

Ben Humberstone, the deputy director for health analysis and life events at the ONS, said previous increases had been linked to opiate use, such as heroine and morphine.

But last year’s results, he said, were found to be related to a wider variety of substances, including cocaine and new psychoactive substances known as legal highs.

Opiate usage attributed to more than half of drug deaths in 2018, according to the recent figures, while deaths from legal highs had doubled to 125 in the space of a year.

He said: We produce these figures to help inform decision makers working towards protecting those at risk of dying from drug poisoning.

Dr Emily Finch, the vice-chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ addictions faculty, said the 2018 figures should serve as a wake-up call to the government that their approach to addiction services is putting people’s lives at risk.

She attributed to statistics to spending cuts on adult drug misuse services and shortages in skilled professional staff.

National decision makers need to wake up to the fact that swingeing cuts to services, disconnecting NHS mental health services from addiction services and shifting the focus away from harm reduction to abstinence-based recovery is destroying lives and fuelling the increase in drug-related deaths, she said.

Meanwhile, Dr James Nicholls, chief executive of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, said the deaths were an avoidable tragedy, and criticised policy for being counter-productive.

He said: Current policy is not protecting people or their communities; instead it is blocking measures we know can save lives, while decimating treatment funding.

People dependent on drugs don’t die from overdoses in supervised drug consumption rooms or heroin prescribing clinics. We need these approaches to be supported and funded in the UK.

Speaking specifically on the rise of cocaine-related deaths, Addaction chief executive Mike Dixon said treatment services need to do more.

He said: There’s an idea that people have to hit ‘rock bottom’ to access support and most people who use cocaine don’t consider themselves in this category.

We need to shift this narrative to get more people into treatment that we know can save lives.

Many of the drug poisoning deaths that occurred in 2018 are also believed to have been missed from statistics, due to the time it takes for inquests to be carried out.

This also means around half the deaths presented in the 2018 figures would have actually occurred in previous years for the same reason.

(c) Sky News 2019: Drug deaths at highest level since records began – ONS