The health harms of drugs: a new guide from the Department of Health

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The Department of Health have published an updated guide summarising the health harms of drug and alcohol misuse, which is aimed at supporting non-medical practitioners working with substance misuse issues.

The document updates the 2003 “Dangerousness of Drugs” guide.  It’s an 80-page PDF report and it outlines acute and chronic problems associated with each substance, as well as:

  • Factors that mediate or moderate the risk
  • Potential health risks linked to substances commonly added to illicit drugs
  • The influence of different circumstances of use, e.g poly-substance abuse

The guide is primarily aimed at drug and alcohol treatment professionals, although it will also be extremely useful for everyone from service users to GPs and commissioners. It provides the most up to date scientific evidence on the health harms arising from licit and illicit substance misuse. The update includes new drugs since the guide was last published, such as novel synthetic drugs and takes a more in-depth look at the potential harms of using more than one drug and the adulterants commonly added to illegal drugs.

The guide was collated by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University who have produced evidence tables for each substance by conducting a systematic retrieval and collection of relevant peer reviewed literature. Evidence from systematic reviews and well designed observational studies was prioritised for inclusion, providing, where available, the strongest evidence available of an association between the substance use in question and a particular health outcome. Further details about the methodology used can be found in the technical document.

Each substance has evidence tables that cover three areas:

  1. Acute adverse effects (physical and psychological) associated with use
  2. Chronic adverse effects (physical, psychological and dependence-related) associated with use
  3. Factors that mediate and moderate harms (route of administration, combination use, setting, developmental issues and legal situation) associated with use
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