International Overdose Awareness Day: EMCDDA answers key questions on drug-related deaths

How many people die every year in Europe from a drug-related death? Are young and old people affected equally? What substances are involved in these fatalities? These are some of the questions answered in the EMCDDA’s ‘Frequently asked questions (FAQs): drug overdose deaths in Europe’, published today to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.

Across Europe, overdose is a leading cause of avoidable death among people who use drugs. The European Drug Report 2023 describes how over 6 100 deaths, involving one or more illicit drug, were reported in the European Union in 2021, with the estimate exceeding 6 600 deaths when Turkey and Norway are included. Most fatalities occur among people in their late thirties and early forties, although much younger people are also affected. Four out of five deaths occur in males. The age and gender of the cases vary across countries, reflecting the diversity of the populations at high risk of drug-related deaths.

Most overdose deaths in Europe are linked to the use of opioids (heroin or synthetic opioids), although cocaine, other stimulant drugs and medicines also play a role. New threats are also emerging, with preliminary 2022 and 2023 data from the Baltic countries pointing to an increase in the number of deaths involving potent new synthetic opioids.

The FAQs highlight situations that increase the risk of overdose and showcase effective response measures that can prevent many of these premature deaths. Treatment and harm reduction options are available for people who use opioids and stimulants and who engage in polydrug use. Interventions that can reduce the risk of overdose deaths include: programmes providing take-home naloxone (the opioid overdose reversal medicine) and drug consumption rooms, which help ensure a safer drug use environment.

In this resource, new trends and developments are illustrated through a range of maps and graphics with a gender and age breakdown. Methodologies, references and links to further reading are also included. The digital, modular and accessible format of the FAQs makes it easier to explore and share the data and analysis on drug-related deaths and responses.

Addressing drug-related harm and reducing drug-related deaths are priorities enshrined in the EU Drugs Strategy and Action Plan 2021–25. This commitment remains central to the work of the EMCDDA as it prepares for its new mandate in 2024 which will see it expand its monitoring, boost EU preparedness and develop competence for better interventions in the drugs field.