Drug-related deaths: why data matter to save lives


Drug use is a major cause of harm and premature deaths among European adults. Many drug-related deaths are a direct result of a drug overdose. But drugs also contribute to other kinds of deaths, such as those caused by HIV infection or viral hepatitis. Drug use is also associated with an elevated risk of suicide, cancer and with deaths caused by violence and accidents.

European experts define overdoses as ‘deaths happening shortly after the consumption of one or more illicit psychoactive substances, and that are directly related to this consumption’.

Thousands of overdoses are reported every year. Numbers are a minimum estimate because data is limited. Adults between 30 and 40 years are the most affected. Four out of five reported cases are males.

Most cases involve opioids, but cocaine, amphetamines, new psychoactive substances, alcohol and medicines such as benzodiazepines are often found too. Most overdoses reported in Europe involve a mix of substances.

It is difficult to get reliable data on the number of overdoses because it depends on different factors:

  • on whether autopsies and toxicological examinations are ordered when there is a suspected death
  • on the practices and the equipment used in forensic laboratories
  • on how the cause of death is recorded in the death certificates
  • and on how this information is transmitted and coded in the mortality registries.

The EU drugs agency is committed to monitoring and providing accurate information and data on the health risks of drug use and on the drug treatment and harm reduction responses which exist, work and save lives in Europe. Drug-related deaths harm individuals, families and communities. They are avoidable and, together, we can reduce their human and social costs.