Aim: To determine whether there has been an increase in deaths by overdose in Italy, as elsewhere in the Western world, over the past fifteen years.
Method: This study's conclusions are based on analysis of official data on overdose deaths attributed to illicit drug addiction and abuse (ICD-9 codes 304 and 305) from 1984 to 2000, drawn from two archives of drug abuse information: the Direzione Centrale per i Servizi Antidroga (DADE) of the Italian Ministry of the Interior (1984-2000), and the Health Statistics held at the Italian Central Statistics Institute (ISTAT) (1984-1997). Mortality rates have been calculated for both genders in the following age groups: 15-24, 25-34, and 35-44 years.
Results: Official data indicate that there has been a steady increase in the number of deaths by overdose in Italy over recent 15 years. This trend has affected both genders, but is more evident among males. Over the whole period females had consistently lower overdose rates than males. In both genders the age group 35-44 was subject to the highest mortality rate increase over the study period, however, the highest overdose rates for both males and females were observed in the 25-34 age group. Consistently higher rates were witnessed in the northern regions of Italy with an overall increase across all latitudes. However, the greatest increase over the study period occurred in the South. In 5190 cases evaluated by the Italian Forensic Toxicology Group, 95.9% of deaths were attributed to heroin, but in about half of these, mixtures of three or more substances (heroin, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, cocaine, methadone) were found in the deceased at doses that were likely to have contributed to death.
Conclusions: The increase observed in the rates of death by overdose is likely to be a reflection of increased use of illicit drugs in the general population. Reporting practice by forensic pathologists might explain the extent of attribution of cause of death to heroin. Drop-out from addiction treatment is a commonly observed antecedent of fatal opioid overdose, therefore, caution is required when establishing treatment protocol for patients. Interventions that aim specifically at improving patient compliance with medical and psychiatric therapies should be favoured.