New statistics showing an increase in the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland led to much debate about how politicians can deal with a death rate reported as the highest in the European Union.

This was questioned by a number of pro-independence campaign groups, including All Under One Banner, End The Union and Hope Over Fear. An image shared at least 1,800 times across Facebook and Twitter suggested that Scotland’s drug death numbers were not comparable to other countries.

Scotland is one of the very few nations to include all deaths where all type of drug is found after death. This includes: Suicide, poisoning, morphine, prescription drugs, drugs previously known as legal highs. People who have died due to a heart attack or car crash are included in these statistics if they had any type of drug in their system, even if the drug did not contribute to their death. Scotland's records are more comprehensive that [the rest of the UK] and most in Europe. These changes have been made in 2018. They are incomparable. Hope Over Fear tweet

Ferret Fact Service looked at this claim and found it False.

Evidence

The drug deaths statistics are released annually by National Records Scotland (NRS), and the latest data covers 2018.

Many news reports on the drug deaths rise featured the overall drug deaths figure in 2018, which was 1,187. This was an increase of 253 on the previous year, and the highest number since records began in 1996. There has been a steady rise in the number of deaths since 1996, and the number has risen each year since 2013.

The rate of drug-related deaths is calculated as deaths per million people. Using the 2018 statistics, Scotland’s rate is 218.3, which is an increase of around 27 per cent on the previous year. When comparing drug death rates with other European countries, NRS actually uses the figure from 2016, which is 213.

While the comparison between the Scottish and other European countries is made, NRS cautions that there are differences in the way that data is gathered, including under-reporting in some countries.

The drug-related death rates come from a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. Therefore we should use caution when comparing with European countries directly. However, this issue 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 potential issues “it appears certain that Scotland’s rate is well above the level of most (if not all) of the EU countries.”

The Hope Over Fear post claims that Scotland is one of the very few nations to include in the statistics “all deaths where all type of drug is found after death. This includes: Suicide, poisoning, morphine, prescription drugs, drugs previously known as legal highs.”

The NRS report states that it covers “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 (around three), so would not greatly affect the any comparison between the rest of the UK and Scotland.

The NRS report states that “the Scottish rate could well be at least two and a half times that of the UK as a whole even if there were no methodological differences”.

The Hope Over Fear post is incorrect to state 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.”

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 use.

NRS 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 confirms 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 that Scotland’s drug-related death statistics are not comparable to either UK or Europe is incorrect. While there are some differences between the way the UK and Scotland record such deaths, this does not have a significant impact on the respective rates of drug-related deaths. There are also differences in the way different EU countries gather data, but the official report states that Scotland’s rate is higher than most, if not all.

This claim is false

False – The claim is incorrect, not accurate.

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Want to suggest a fact check? Email us at factcheck@theferret.scot or join our Facebook group.

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