Drug-related deaths

Heroin deaths

In this section, the term ‘drug-related deaths’ is used to refer to deaths caused directly by the consumption of one or more drugs and generally occurring shortly after the consumption of the substance or substances. These deaths are known as ‘overdoses’, ‘poisonings’ or ‘drug-induced deaths’ (146).

Opiates are present in most cases of ‘drug-related deaths’ caused by illegal substances reported in the EU, although in many cases other substances are also identified during the toxicological examination, in particular alcohol, benzodiazepines and, in some countries, cocaine (147).

Between 1990 and 2002, EU countries reported 7 000–9 000 deaths due to overdoses each year (148), adding up to more than 100 000 deaths during this period. These figures can be considered a minimum estimate because under-reporting is likely to occur in many countries.

Overdosing with opiates is one of the leading causes of death among young people in Europe, particularly among males in urban areas (EMCDDA, 2004c). At present, overdose is also the main cause of death among opiate users in the EU as a whole; for instance, in 2001, the EU-15 Member States reported 8 347 drug-related deaths, compared with 1 633 deaths from AIDS among IDUs (EuroHIV, 2004) (149), although the costs and possible longer-term problems of HIV infection should not be overlooked.

The majority of drug users who overdose are men, accounting for 60–100 % of cases, and in most countries the proportion ranges between 75 and 90 %. Most overdose victims are in their 20s or 30s, with a mean age in the mid-30s (range 22–45 years). The mean age is lowest in several of the new Member States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) and Romania, in many of which the proportion of overdose victims younger than 25 years is relatively high, which may reflect a younger heroin-using population in these countries (150).


(146)  This is the definition agreed by the EMCDDA group of national experts: see methodological notes ‘Drug-related death EMCDDA definition’ in the 2005 statistical bulletin and DRD Standard protocol, version 3.0. Most countries have national case definitions that at present are the same as the EMCDDA or relatively similar, although some countries include cases due to psychoactive medicines or non-overdose deaths, generally as a limited proportion (see ‘National definitions of drug-related deaths’ in the 2005 statistical bulletin’).

(147) See Table DRD-1 in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(148) See Tables DRD-2 and DRD-3 in the 2005 statistical bulletin.

(149) The figure for AIDS deaths refers to the western area of WHO Europe and includes deaths in several non-EU countries, e.g. Switzerland, Iceland and Israel.

(150) See Figure DRD-2 in the 2005 statistical bulletin.