Is Britain at the top of the international 'drug death league table'?

Published: 24th Jun 2011

"Britain at top of drug death table" Metro, 24 June 2011

Commuters catching sight of the headline in this morning's Metro may have been shocked by the suggestion that the UK apparently had the highest number of drug-related deaths among its international peers.

In fact, those reading further would soon have discovered that rather than sitting at the pinnacle of this 'drug death table', the number of drug-related deaths in the UK was actually "among the highest in world", with the Metro eventually acknowledging that Britain ranks sixth.

But are there more issues at play here? Full Fact took a closer look at the numbers.


The Metro's report takes its statistical cue from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's recently-released World Drugs Report 2011. As table of the statistical annex reveals, the UK recorded 2,278 drug-related deaths.

Sure enough, this places the UK sixth among the countries listed by the UN, behind the USA (38,396), Ukraine (7,597), Russia (7,464), Iran (4,800) and Mexico (4,562).

Whether or not this means that the UK has a particular drug problem is more moot. This is because these numbers do not take account of the relative size of each country, and thus how prevalent drug-related deaths are in the population as a whole.

For this reason, the UN report also notes the number of drug-related deaths per million of population. Looking at this metric pushes the UK further down the 'rankings'.

Britain clocks in with 55.9 drug-related deaths per million population, behind not only the five countries already mentioned, but also Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Canada, and even the Seychelles.

However the legitimacy of drawing up a 'league table' for drug deaths itself is questionable, as there are a number of data comparability issues that need to be considered.

For example, the report itself notes that there are large variations in the data coverage in different regions: "The level of reporting on drug-related deaths encompasses nearly half (49%) of the world's population aged 15-64 - although there are large regional differences in coverage: North America - 100%; Europe - 97%; South America (including the Caribbean and Central America) - 64%; Oceania - 62%; Asia - 42%; and Africa, <1%."

Even where data is available, some countries seem to have more up-to-date records than others. While the number of drug-related deaths in the UK pertains to 2009, in Columbia the figure given dates from 2000.


While the Metro is not wrong to rank the UK as it does among other countries on the number of drug-related deaths recorded, whether or not this is a reliable gauge of the relative scale of the country's drug problem is questionable.

Arguably the number of deaths as a proportion of the population provides a better measure, but even this has significant problems attached to it, given the inconsistencies in the data age and coverage.


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