20th Oct 2017

Drug overdoses on the rise in Europe

  • Some 8,441 died in Europe from drug overdoses in 2015. (Photo: Michael Bird)

Fatalities linked to drug use have increased for the third consecutive year across Europe, according to the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

An EMCDDA report issued on Tuesday (6 June) states that an estimated total of 8,441 overdose deaths were registered in 2015 across the EU, Norway, and Turkey – up from 7,950 in 2014.

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"Opioids, and often heroin, are present in the majority of cases, often in combination with alcohol or benzodiazepine," EMCDDA's director, Alexis Goosdeel, told reporters in Brussels.

The 96-page report noted a spike in heroin-related deaths in the United Kingdom. Heroin or morphine were cited in some 1,200 deaths in Wales and England alone – representing a 26 percent increase from the year before. An increase in heroin-related deaths was also found in Ireland, Scotland and Turkey.

Estonia has the highest mortality rate linked to drug overdose, with some 103 deaths per million people, followed by Sweden at 100, Norway at 76, and Ireland at 71. Most of the fatalities are male.

The figures are influenced, in part, by national practices of reporting deaths, as well as recording information and entering overdose cases in national mortality databases, notes the report.

"We also note that the picture is not straightforward, in some countries, deaths from other opioids exceed those of heroin," said Goosdeel.

The report found that the number of recorded methadone-related deaths had exceeded heroin-related deaths in Croatia, Denmark, France and Ireland.

Psychoactive substances

EU home affairs commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, speaking alongside Goosdeel, said drug usage has also risen. He noted powerful new synthetic opioids are still appearing on the market.

"Last year, 66 new psychoactive substances were detected by the European Early Warning System. This is a rate of over one per week," Avramopoulos said.

More had been detected in 2015, but the report says the overall availability of the substances remains high. New and more restrictive laws in some EU states may have also had an effect on the slowing detection rates. However, the sale of the drugs is also being pushed online.

Highly potent synthetic opioids, while still a niche drug, are also becoming more popular. The drugs mimic the effects of heroin and morphine and are deemed a growing health threat in Europe.

Fentanyl, sometimes more powerful than heroin, represented some 60 percent of the 600 seizures of new synthetic opioids in 2015. Earlier this year, the EMCDDA found that two fentanyls were linked to some 50 deaths.

"Eight new opioids were reported through the EU Early Warning System for the first time in 2016 alone," said Goosdeel.

He also added that cannabis remains Europe's most commonly used illicit drug. At least 88 million adults consumed it last year.

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