Why drug-related deaths in Scotland are NOT two and a half times higher than rest of UK


From Reporting Scotland last night:

‘Drug-related deaths in Scotland are two and a half times higher than the rest of the UK.’

That would be a huge difference and straight off the bat as they say, it’s just not very plausible just as ‘Crime in England is two and a half times higher than in Scotland‘ or ‘Road deaths in Wales are two and a half times higher than in Northern Ireland’ would cause you to stop and think. Any undergraduate would know that there are almost certainly serious differences in the way the data has been collected and presented then investigate that.

The ONS statistics used by Reporting Scotland, 934 deaths or 172 per million do, at first sight, seem to suggest the rate is two and a half times higher but do not take into account regional variations within England (below) and come from a source which compares these with English data which are not gathered in the same way. See this telling example on page 47:

‘It follows that some deaths could (in theory) be counted differently in, say, Scotland and England. For example, a death from intentional self-poisoning by an uncontrolled substance would be counted in Scotland (but not in England) if a controlled substance was present in the body but was not believed to have contributed to the death (because the presence of the controlled substance would not be recorded in the data for England).’

Perhaps contributing to this problem deaths are more likely to be recorded as suicide in Scotland:

Unlike Scotland, in England and Wales, whether a death due to injury is classified as intentional or accidental depends on information provided by coroners. Narrative verdicts from coroners often do not provide information on whether the injuries were due to intentional self-harm, were accidental or were of undetermined intent. In these circumstances, coding rules mean that classification of the death defaults to ‘accidental’, and therefore suicides may be underestimated in England and Wales (and therefore also the UK).’ 


Given England’s much greater population and diversity, a direct comparison with Scotland is meaningless. See these deaths per million regional figures:



Should the English data be collected in the same way as the Scottish data would the level still be much higher or higher at all than in, eg, Northern England or Wales?

Also important is a comparison of these levels of death with other causes. Remember for Scotland it’s 172 in a million people but here were 228 alcohol-related deaths per million in 2017.


There were 1 851 smoking-related deaths in 2015.


I’d offer to help but most undergraduates could do this.


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