COCAINE-related hospital admissions in Wales have more than doubled during the past five years, with increases across all age groups, from young people to older aged adults.

Figures from Public Health Wales have revealed that this rise has come despite a decrease in hospital admissions for illicit drugs overall.

And experts fear that increased availability and drug strength are fuelling cocaine-related admissions.

Based on the measure known as the European Age Standardised Rate, cocaine-linked hospital admissions rose in Wales from 8.2 per 100,000 population during 2012/13, to 18.7 per 100,000 in 2017/18, an increase of 114 per cent. The admission rate has risen noticeably more quickly during the past three years.

Though cocaine-related hospital admissions account for a relatively small amount of overall admissions linked to illicit drug use, the increase - given this is such a powerful and addictive drug - is worrying.

“This is a substantial rise, but not one that is isolated to Wales. Similar patterns related to cocaine use are emerging UK- and Europe-wide,” said Josie Smith, head of Public Health Wales’ substance misuse programme.

“It is likely that increased availability and purity levels of cocaine, in addition to the use of alcohol and other drugs alongside cocaine, are contributing to the increase in hospital admissions and treatment assessments.

“With this in mind, substance misuse services in Wales will need to place even greater focus on early identification, harm reduction and treatment strategies related to stimulant use”.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board last year recorded the second highest rate of cocaine-related hospital admissions of Wales’ seven health board areas, behind Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales.

But in 2017/18, Gwent’s health board recorded the highest level of hospital admissions in Wales due to illicit drug use overall, at 263.7 per 100,000 population. This was significantly higher than the next highest level, of 229.9 per 100,000, in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area.

Gwent topped the table for opioid-related hospital admissions last year, had the second highest rate of cannabinoid-related hospital admissions in Wales, and the third highest rate of benzodiazepine-related admissions.

The rate of drug misuse deaths in Wales (6.5 per 100,000 population) remains higher than in England (4.3 per 100,000). The rate in Gwent last year was 2.73 per 100,000, the lowest for three years, and the second lowest of Wales’ health board areas.

The rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions fell by four per cent in Wales last year compared to 2016/17, and were down eight per cent on the 2013/14 level. But there was significant variation between council areas.

The admissions rate from eight council areas increased last year compared to 2016//17 - including Blaenau Gwent (up 6.2 per cent) and Monmouthshire (up 3.4 per cent).

But there were decreases in admission rates from 14 council areas, including Newport (down 15.3 per cent), Torfaen (down 10.2 per cent), and Caerphilly (down 9.2 per cent).

The alcohol-related hospital admissions rate in Blaenau Gwent last year - 462.4 per 100,000 population - was the highest in Wales.

Public Health Wales’ figures - contained in its Annual Profile of Substance Misuse in Wales - indicate that Wales-wide, the number of people admitted to hospital for alcohol-specific conditions is 2.4 times higher than admissions for illicit drug use.

And alcohol-related deaths increased by seven per cent in 2017 from the previous year, with 540 deaths. This was the highest number of alcohol deaths per year since 2008.

The figures provide an important barometer for the current climate of substance misuse, and are used to help identify where interventions are best directed to protect the population that currently use, or are at risk of misusing illicit substances and alcohol.

THE chief executive officer of a leading charity believes there are a number of reasons to explain the rise.

Martin Blakebrough of Newport-based Kaleidoscope said: "What is firstly important to understand is that different areas have different drug uses. Take, for instance, Newport which tends to have more opium use.

"Regarding the rise in cocaine-related hospital admissions, one explanation is the price of the drug. The price of cocaine has fallen sharply and can be bought cheaply. If it is cheaper more people will buy it.

"Another reason is the geography of Gwent. We are not far away from major cities, like London and Birmingham. This means that it is not difficult to get drugs from these areas."