The publication last November of the National Drugs-Related Death Index by the Health Research Board provided for the first time a comprehensive understanding of the death toll associated with problem drug use in Ireland. The Index, which has been compiled to the highest European standard, was commissioned under the national drugs strategy by the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The index covers the period 1998-2005 and I accept that it presents a stark picture of the consequences of problem drug use. It found there were 2,442 drug-related deaths over the eight year period examined. In 2005 there were 400 drug-related deaths, of which 232 were directly related to drugs, with 168 linked indirectly to drug usage. The index showed that the number of deaths increased over the period from 1998, with the greater rate of increase relating to indirect deaths, where drugs were a contributory factor.
The report's analysis implicated heroin and other opiates, poly-substance use of both illicit and licit drugs including alcohol, and prescription and over the counter medication as causes, to varying degrees, in the direct deaths. While the report does not include deaths relating to alcohol only, I understand that research in that regard is ongoing by the Health Research Board.
The report confirms the significant health dangers, including premature death, associated with problem drug use. The results of the all-island drug prevalence surveys, carried out in 2002-2003 and again in 2006-2007 by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs in conjunction with its colleagues in Northern Ireland, sets out the most robust evidence of the prevalence of problem drug use in the general population in Ireland. Comparisons between the two all-island surveys indicate that the drug problem facing the country is changing to a degree. Evidence from the first bulletin of the 2006-07 prevalence survey launched last year indicates that while rates of lifetime and recent, that is, last year, overall illegal drug misuse have increased, the level of current, that is, last month, illegal drug use has stabilised.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The increase in lifetime use for all drugs was expected given that older people tend to have less exposure to — and usage of — drugs over their lifetimes and that illegal drug use is primarily a youth-younger adult — under 35s — phenomenon. The increase in last year use is of more concern and it emphasises the challenging task that we continue to face in tackling problem drug use in Ireland. Meanwhile, the overall stabilisation in last month use is to be welcomed and I am hopeful that, with the continuing valuable work being done through the national drugs strategy, this trend will continue.
The findings from the index further supports the approach adopted in the National Drugs Strategy 2001-2008 involving a combination of demand and supply reduction measures to tackle problem drug use. The current strategy has sought to reduce the impact of problem drug use in our society, including the level of drug deaths, through the development of treatment and rehabilitation services, including harm reduction approaches, for those engaged in problem drug use; promulgating prevention and awareness messages throughout society, but most particularly aimed at young people at risk and those already involved in problem drug use; and supply reduction initiatives through the Garda and Revenue's Customs Service.
As the Deputy is aware, a steering group comprising representatives of the statutory, community and voluntary sectors is currently developing proposals on a new national drugs strategy and I expect to receive its recommendations in the coming weeks.
In the context of developing its proposals, the steering group is considering what further actions can be developed to counter the level of drug deaths. In this context, the Deputy should note that the Health Service Executive has already initiated work on the development of a national overdose prevention strategy which is a very welcome development.