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Press Release

Press release

Deaths among drug users

19 November 2009

The Health Research Board (HRB) will today publish the first national report on trends in deaths among drug users due to traumatic or medical causes. Over the eight-year period 1998-2005, 885 drug users died. Two in every three died as a result of trauma, such as a road traffic collision, and one in three died from a medical cause, such as liver disease.

'Our analysis shows that the number of these deaths almost trebled, rising from 63 in 1998 to 167 in 2005. This upward trend indicates that more people are consuming drugs and taking risks. Some have also acquired infections or developed medical conditions associated with drug use', says Dr Suzi Lyons, Senior Researcher at the HRB.

Key findings - deaths due to medical causes
  • There were 270 deaths due to medical causes, the annual number rising from 11 in 1998 to 63 in 2005.
  • Three in every four deaths were of males in the 30-44-year age group.
  • The most common medical causes of death were cardiac events, followed by respiratory infections and liver disease.

When drug-use history was analysed by medical cause of death, it was found that:

  • The majority (two-thirds) of those who died of medical causes had a history of opiate use.
  • Three in every five of those who died of liver disease had a history of alcohol dependence.
  • The highest numbers of cocaine and cannabis users were among those who died from a cardiac event.
Key findings - deaths due to trauma.
  • There were 476 deaths due to trauma, the annual number doubling from 39 in 1998 to 83 in 2005.
  • The majority (more than one in nine) of those who died were males in their twenties, which is consistent with international findings.
  • The annual number of deaths from trauma was similar in Dublin to that in the rest of the country. One-quarter of deaths were in the South Western Regional Drugs Task Force area (South West Dublin, West Wicklow and Co Kildare).
  • One-third of deaths were the result of hanging; one in five were linked to road traffic collisions, and in almost half of these cases the deceased was the driver of a vehicle.  
Toxicology results for deaths due to trauma.

A positive toxicology report was available for 86.5 per cent of the deaths due to trauma; in many cases the report showed that more than one substance was present.

  • Alcohol was present in almost two-thirds of cases.
  • Cannabis was the illegal drug most commonly found.
  • Cannabis, heroin and cocaine were found in the greatest proportions in deaths due to violence, such as shooting, stabbing or assault.
  • MDMA (ecstasy) was found in the greatest proportion in deaths due to road traffic collisions.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Lyons says,

'The correlation between toxicology and drug-use history and the type of death recorded supports the argument that drug use contributes to premature death in Ireland. The majority of cases died at a younger age than their peers in the general population. People need to be educated and to take note of the health consequences of drug use, in particular the cardio-toxic effects of cocaine'.

Many deaths by hanging or drowning had positive toxicology results for alcohol, cannabis, benzodiazepines and antidepressants. The presence of antidepressants suggests that a proportion of these cases may have had mental health problems. The evidence in this report supports the need for increased awareness of people who have both a substance misuse problem and mental health issues.

Speaking about the number of drug users who were driving at the time of their death and had a positive toxicology, Dr Lyons said:

'This is further evidence of the need for more reliable statistics on drink/drug driving. We need to expand the forensic analysis programme to understand the true incidence of driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, we do not have a reliable system of road-side testing for the presence of drugs in the body'.

This paper, HRB Trends Series 8, Trends in deaths among drug uses in Ireland from traumatic and medical causes, 1998-2005, is a companion to HRB Trends Series 4, which analysed trends in deaths by drug poisoning. Together these reports give a reliable estimate of the total burden of mortality related to drug use in Ireland. They will help equip the government and relevant agencies to respond in an appropriate and timely manner to drug-related deaths and will provide a baseline against which to monitor related responses.

The data for these reports were obtained from the National Drug-Related Deaths Index managed by the HRB. Both papers can be downloaded from our website at


For more information contact:
Gillian Markey, Communications Manager
Health Research Board
m 00353 87 2288514
t 00353 1 2345103
e gmarkey(at)


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