Study finds rise in Scottish drug deaths due to 1980s inequality

New analysis shows that the risk of drug-related deaths increased in Scotland from the 1990s for those born between 1960 and 1980, especially within deprived areas.

According to the findings, the increase is likely to be the result of exposure to the social, economic and political contexts of the 1980s, which in turn, increased inequality.

The analysis, carried out by NHS Health Scotland and the University of Glasgow, has been released to coincide with the meeting of senior leaders in health at the ‘Drug Policy through a Health Lens’ event organised by the Scottish Government and Partnership for Action on Drugs, in partnership with Scottish Drugs Forum, to discuss the future of drugs policy in Scotland

The research found a cohort within those born between 1960 and 1980, the group known as “Generation X”, had an increased risk of drug-related death from 1990 onwards.

Report author Dr Jon Minton, a quantitative research associate at the University of Glasgow, said similar patterns had previously been reported about the risk of suicide in deprived areas.

His analysis was “consistent with the hypothesis that economic and other policy decisions during the 1980s created rising income inequality, the erosion of hope amongst those who were least resilient and able to adjust, and resulted in a delayed negative health impact”.

He said: “The same kind of pattern we have observed and reported on previously regarding the risk of suicide in vulnerable cohorts in deprived areas in Scotland is repeated, and even more clearly visible, when looking at trends in drug-related death risk.

“For people born in 1960s and 70s, the risk of drug-related deaths throughout the life course was much increased, and gender and area inequalities in these risks increased even more.

“The similarity in trends in both suicide and drug-related deaths suggests a common underlying cause.”

Drug deaths in Scotland hit a record high in 2015 with 706 people listed as having died as a result of drug use that year. A similar pattern occurred elsewhere in the UK.

The number has been steadily increasing since 1995, when 426 deaths were recorded, and a rising number of deaths have been among older age groups – 73% of the 2015 deaths were of people aged over 35, while the number of those aged under 24 fell.

Dr Andrew Fraser of NHS Health Scotland said the research suggested that the continued increase in drug-related deaths was “likely to be the result of a cohort of people who are at higher risk”.

He said: “The full impact of excess mortality in these cohorts with high drug-related deaths is unlikely to be known for some time. It already represents the deaths of hundreds of people prematurely.

“We are hopeful that the findings will be useful in informing current and future policy to help prevent the creation of further cohorts at greater risk of drug-related deaths in Scotland.”

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