Public Health England reports on the increasing use of drugs in 2019

A monitoring document published by Public Health England this week found that recent years have seen the highest prevalence of drug use in the past decade. The report, United Kingdom drug situation 2019: Focal Point annual report, also covers the drug market, drug-related deaths and drug-related harms (including a section on hepatitis C) for 2019.

Key findings include:

  • Prevalence. The most recent surveys covering England and Wales, and Scotland reported the highest prevalence of drug use in the past 10 years, at 9.4% in England and Wales, 12% in Scotland and 5.9% in Northern Ireland. Drug use has also risen among 15 year olds over the last five years (38% lifetime use in England and 21% lifetime use in Scotland).
  • Treatment. In 2018, 114,752 people started drug treatment in England, compared to 122,000 in 2015.
  • Drugs used in the community. The most commonly used drugs have not changed over time. Cannabis is the most prevalent, followed by powder cocaine, MDMA, ketamine and amphetamine. The UK has the largest reported opioid-using population in Europe – with opioids accounting for 80% of drug-related deaths in the UK – and the highest levels of crack cocaine problems in Europe. Hepatitis C and other blood borne viruses can be transmitted via injecting or snorting drugs.
  • Drugs used in prisons. The number of reported drug-related deaths in prisons and immigration removal centres more than quadrupled between 2014-15 and 2018-19, from 10 to 42.
  • Harms. There were 3,284 drug-related deaths in 2017 in the UK, with mortality at 76 per million (in Scotland it was 229 per million). Hepatitis C antibody prevalence was noted to be 54% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2018 – the highest figure in a decade though this has been due to a concerted effort to identify and treat patients and, as antibody positivity includes those who have been cured of the virus, does not reflect rates of active infection. 

Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “Public Health England’s latest monitoring document highlights some concerning trends in the harms resulting from drug use. As drug-related deaths continue to rise and we get closer to reaching elimination of hepatitis C, the importance of harm reduction initiatives such as needle and syringe exchanges and opioid substitution therapy becomes ever more paramount as a means of reducing overdoses and the transmission of blood-borne viruses.”