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The relative risk of fatal poisoning by methadone or buprenorphine within the wider population of England and Wales
  1. Dave Marteau1,
  2. Rebecca McDonald2,
  3. Kamlesh Patel1
  1. 1Health and Human Development, University of East London, London, UK
  2. 2Addictions Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Dave Marteau, d.m.marteau{at}


Objective To examine the population-wide overdose risk emerging from the prescription of methadone and buprenorphine for opioid substitution treatment in England and Wales.

Design Retrospective administrative data study.

Setting National databases for England and Wales.

Participants/cases Drug-related mortality data were drawn from the Office for National Statistics, and prescription data for methadone and buprenorphine were obtained from the National Health Service for the years 2007–2012. During this 6-year period, a total of 2366 methadone-related deaths and 52 buprenorphine-related deaths were registered, corresponding to 17 333 163 methadone and 2 602 374 buprenorphine prescriptions issued. The analysis encompassed poisoning deaths among members of the wider population of England and Wales who consumed, but were not prescribed these medications, in addition to patients prescribed methadone or buprenorphine.

Main outcome measures Mortality risk: substance-specific overdose rate per 1000 prescriptions issued; relative risk ratio of methadone in relation to buprenorphine.

Results During the years 2007–2012, the pooled overdose death rate was 0.137/1000 prescriptions of methadone, compared to 0.022/1000 prescriptions of buprenorphine (including buprenorphine-naloxone). The analysis generated a relative risk ratio of 6.23 (95% CI 4.79 to 8.10) of methadone in relation to buprenorphine. UK Borders Agency data were taken into consideration and revealed that only negligible amounts of methadone and buprenorphine were seized on entering UK territory between 2007 and 2012, suggesting domestic diversion.

Conclusions Our analysis of the relative safety of buprenorphine and methadone for opioid substitution treatment reveals that buprenorphine is six times safer than methadone with regard to overdose risk among the general population. Clinicians should be aware of the increased risk of prescribing methadone, and tighter regulations are needed to prevent its diversion.

  • fatal overdose
  • methadone
  • buprenorphine
  • relative risk

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