This is an updated version of a fact check from July 2019.
The latest statistics on drug-related deaths in Scotland have been released, with a new record high for the sixth year in a row.
The Scottish Government has faced criticism from campaigners and opposition parties over the increasing number of people dying from drugs, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted people had been let down and publicly apologised for the government’s failure in dealing with the problem.
However, an image suggesting that Scotland’s drug death rate was higher because of the way drug deaths were counted has been shared across social media, and amplified by pro-independence accounts including Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus MacNeil.
It claims that because of the different way drug deaths are counted, comparisons between Scotland and other countries are not credible.
Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it False.
The statistics which were published on 15 December are released every year by the National Records of Scotland (NRS), and the latest data is for 2019.
The headline figure is that the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland increased again, from 1,187 in 2018 to 1,264 in 2019. This is a six per cent increase and the highest figure since records began in 1996.
Over the last ten years, drug deaths in Scotland have increased by 132 per cent.
The rate of drug-related deaths across Europe is calculated as deaths per million people. Using the latest 2019 NRS statistics, Scotland’s rate is 231.4 in 2019. When comparing drug death rates with other European countries, NRS combines data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction with its own.
The European data covers those aged 16 to 64, and Scotland’s death rate per million (using 2018 data as it gives accurate comparison with most European countries) on this measure is 295.
NRS states that there are differences in the way that data is gathered, including under-reporting in some countries, which means some caution is required when comparing European countries.
However, this does not mean that comparisons cannot be drawn between countries who use broadly similar standards when gathering drug related death data.
The NRS report says that despite these differences in data collection “it appears certain that Scotland’s rate is well above the level of most (if not all) of the EU countries”.
The viral post claims that Scotland is one of very few nations to include “all deaths where all type [sic] of drug is found after death. This includes: Suicide, poisoning, morphine, prescription drugs, drugs previously known as legal highs.”
But the NRS report states that the figures cover “drugs which were implicated in, or which potentially contributed to, the cause of death”.
The report says that for a poisoning death, which covers almost all the statistics, to be counted as drug-related “a drug listed under the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) was known to be present in the body”.
Essentially, they would not be counted if the only drugs found in the body were legal ones.
There are differences in the way drug deaths are categorised between Scotland and the rest of the UK. In Scotland, drug related deaths are usually registered more quickly, as the rest of the UK usually requires a coroner to certify the death after an inquest. In practice, this means that Scotland’s statistics are likely to be slightly more up-to-date.
There are a small number of deaths which would be recorded by Scottish statistics but not in the rest of the UK, because of the way data is collected. For example, a person might intentionally overdose on a legal substance, but also have illegal drugs in their system. This would be counted in Scotland and not in England.
However this accounts for a small number of deaths each year (three on average), so would not greatly affect any comparison between the rest of the UK and Scotland.
According to the 2019 report: “The Scottish rate could well be at least three times that of the UK as a whole even if there were no methodological differences.”
A special court has been set up in Scotland to deal with drugs offences.
The image also states that “people who have died due to a heart attack or car crash are included if they had any type of drug in their system, even if the drug did not contribute to their death”.
This is not accurate. Car crashes are explicitly excluded from the definition of drug-related deaths, and heart attacks are included only if the underlying cause was listed as drug intoxication.
Other deaths which are specifically excluded from the statistics include deaths from AIDS where the risk factor was believed to be the sharing of needles, deaths from drowning, falls, and other accidents under the influence of drugs, deaths due to assault by a person who under influence of drugs, or as a result of involvement in drug-related crime.
NRS has confirmed to Ferret Fact Service that they did not change their definitions before the 2018 statistics were released, and that any changes to methodology would be noted in the report.
While Scotland’s data is more complete and specific than that of the UK as a whole, it is not correct to say they are “incomparable”. Scottish statistics show clearly that Scotland’s rate of drug deaths per million people is significantly higher than the UK’s, and NRS confirmed that the small differences in methodology are not enough to affect the number of deaths caused by drugs by a significant amount.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: False
The viral claim which has resurfaced in 2020 – that Scotland’s drug-related death statistics are not comparable to the UK or Europe – is incorrect. While there are some differences between the way Scotland, the UK and European countries record such deaths, this does not have a significant impact on the respective rates of drug-related deaths. The official report states that Scotland’s rate is likely higher than most, if not all countries in Europe.
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