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April 4, 2018updated 26 Apr 2022 8:38am

Government statistics authority releases council heroin death map that no one asked for

By Jonn Elledge

You know, I’ve got a lot on today, I really do. There are half a dozen things I’ve been meaning to write, a podcast I need to edit, and my editing backlog has now got so long that some of the people who sent me their copy during the latter years of the Boris Johnson mayoralty are starting to get impatient (and if you’re one of them, sorry).

But then sometimes, I see something, and I immediately know that this what my day is about now. This Office for National Statistics (ONS) dataset, whose existence Tyron Wilson was kind enough to point me towards, is a case in point. There are three things about it that are completely amazing:

1) The ONS publishes council-level statistics about where residents are most likely to die of opioid overdoses. Which is amazing.

2) The page on its website containing these statistics contains the following sentence:

Places that may have been more synonymous with family holidays are among the 10 areas that saw the highest rates of drugs misuse fatalities where heroin and/or morphine were mentioned on the death certificate.

Which is even more amazing.

3) The most amazing thing of all, though, is that – as part of its commitment to user-friendly data – the ONS has produced an embeddable interactive map highlighting Britain’s smack overdose hotspots. They’re in red. Hover over a dot and you’ll get the data.

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Rate of heroin and morphine deaths by misuse, 2014 to 2016, England and Wales. Image: ONS.

It is, to be fair, a very effective map. Each block represents a local authority. Grey dots mean fewer than three deaths in three years – numbers so small the concept of a death rate becomes effectively meaningless. (There’s also no data for Scotland or Northern Ireland.) 

Light blues mean a fairly low opioid death rate of under 2 per 100,000 people; dark blue is a slightly worrying 2 to 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Red is higher still: just 14 councils breach this barrier.

And yes, as the release points out, most of those – 10 of the 14 – are on the coast, though not all of them are resorts. (Neath Port Talbot, despite appearing landlocked on this map, is on the Bristol Channel.) Most of these have a death rate of under 6 per 100,000 – but in Hastings it was 6.5, and in in-land Burnley it’s 7.6.

Highest by far is Blackpool, the north’s biggest seaside resort, where for every 100,000 people, fully 14 of them died through heroin or morphine misuse between 2014 and 2016. As the ONS notes, “Some of the 10 places also have high levels of deprivation, which could link to increased drug use.” Well, yes.

Source: Deaths Related to Drug Poisoning, England and Wales, ONS.

It’s fascinating in its way. But it’s also slightly bizarre. What are we, the public, meant to do with this information? I’m all for open data – but who, exactly, is this embeddable interactive map for? Answers on a postcard.

Bit of seaside-related humour for you, there.

I can’t wait for the follow up on cocaine deaths.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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