Ageing population of drug users in Leeds facing increased risk of health problems

The legacy of an epidemic of hard drug taking in the 1980s and 1990s means an ageing population of users is at increased risk of suffering fatal health consequences.

By Don Mort
Monday, 6th May 2019, 5:48 pm
Updated Monday, 6th May 2019, 5:51 pm
Users of crack cocaine and heroin are increasingly in the 35-64 age group.
Users of crack cocaine and heroin are increasingly in the 35-64 age group.

The number of people aged 35-64 using heroin and crack cocaine in Leeds rose by 63 per cent over six years as thousands of people from the so-called “Trainspotting generation” continued to struggle with their addiction.

Figures obtained by the JPI Media data unit show that there were an estimated 3,802 users in that age group in the city in 2016-17, up from 2,329 in 2010-11.

A the same time, crack cocaine and heroin use plummeted among younger age groups in Leeds. It was down by 49 per cent among people aged 15-24 in the same six-year period.

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Health experts believe the legacy of Britain’s heroin and crack epidemic from the 1980s onwards is behind the rise in the number of middle-aged drug users.

Before the late 1970s, heroin had been used mainly by a small number of affluent people in London. But when a new supply of cheap heroin opened up between Asia and the UK, the number of young users - dubbed the Trainspotting generation - soared to the hundreds of thousands.

This coincided with the development of crack cocaine, a particularly addictive form of the drug which can be smoked. Those who became addicted at the time are now ageing.

And many people who have been taking heroin or crack for decades will now face a higher risk of overdose or major health problems, said Steve Moffatt, of alcohol, drugs and mental health charity Addaction.

“These statistics reflect a group of people who started using heroin or crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.

“Many of them have struggled to leave the drugs behind and have had really tough lives. They face higher risks of overdosing alongside health issues like lung problems and Hepatitis C. We also know that people who use heroin or crack cocaine are more likely to have an alcohol problem, smoke cigarettes and have poor nutrition.”

In England, there is now estimated to be more than 200,000 opiate and crack cocaine users aged 35 to 64, up by 56,000 since 2010.

The national figure rose by 39 per cent in the six years to 2016/17, a JPIMedia analysis of Public Health England (PHE) data shows. In contrast, the number of 15 to 34-year-olds using the drugs fell by 27 per cent, to 113,785.

Mr Moffatt said more needs to be done to help the ageing group of users. He added: “We can’t be fatalistic about this group - and we need to do better.

“People can make a change at any point in their lives if we make sure we’re there for them with the right kind of support.

“That’s why it’s really important that people know where to go for help if they need it. There’s a drug service in every community. It’s getting tougher to reach the people who need us.

“But it is totally possible for people to heal and recover with the right support. It’s never too late.”

Pete Burkinshaw, Public Health England’s Treatment and Recovery Manager, added: “Older drug users, especially those who have been using heroin since the 1980s and ‘90s, can have cumulative physical and mental health conditions that mean they are often in very poor health.

“This can make them more susceptible to illness and to drug overdose. It’s never too late to get treatment. Anyone using heroin and crack or are having problems with any other drugs or alcohol, whatever their age, should get professional help at their local free drug and alcohol treatment service, which will work with them to help them recover from their addiction.”