The UK is the "addiction capital of Europe", with some of its highest rates of opiate addiction and dependence on alcohol, a major new report warns.
Alcohol and drug abuse costs the UK £21 billion and £15 billion respectively, and the crisis of increasing addiction is fuelling the breakdown of society, according to the think-tank The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
The CSJ says the UK has become a hub for websites peddling "legal highs" or "club drugs" such as Salvia or Green Rolex, which are ordered online and distributed around the country by postmen and couriers who unwittingly become drugs mules. People can also buy class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine from mail order websites.
The CSJ criticised the government for what it calls an "inadequate response to heroin addiction", saying that more than 40,000 drug addicts in England have been stranded on the substitute methadone, which is used to wean addicts off heroin.
The report also highlighted the spiralling rate of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England, which it says have doubled in a decade, and warns that Britain is facing "an epidemic of drink-related conditions".
Christian Guy, director of the CSJ, said: "While our addiction problem damages the economy, it is the human consequences that present the real tragedy. Drug and alcohol abuse fuels poverty and deprivation, leading to family breakdown and child neglect, homelessness, crime, debt and long-term worklessness. From its impact on children to its consequences for pensioners, dependency destroys lives, wrecks families and blights communities."
The CSJ's report, No Quick Fix, found that the UK has Europe's highest rate of addiction to opiates, such as heroin, and the highest lifetime-use of amphetamines, cocaine and ecstasy. More young people have used "legal highs", or new psychoactive substances (NPS), in the UK than anywhere else in Europe, representing a quarter of the European total.
The CSJ found that one in 12 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the UK - more than 670,000 - said they have taken NPS drugs. In England 6,486 people were treated in 2011/12 for abusing these types of drugs, an increase of 39% since 2005/06. Figures revealed deaths involving "legal highs" in England and Wales increased from 29 in 2011 to 52 last year, the CSJ said.
The think-tank criticised the government's response to the growing crisis as "bureaucratic and inadequate", saying that while it had used temporary banning orders three times to control approximately 15 substances since 2010, during this time more than 150 new substances have emerged and are available in shops and online. The report also attacked a failure to offer heroin addicts effective treatment. A Freedom of Information inquiry found that 55% of councils in England have had funding for residential treatment cut since the Coalition came to power, despite arguments by Prime Minister David Cameron for more residential programmes, the CSJ said.
Regarding alcohol, the CSJ found dependence among British men is second in western Europe and seventh overall, while alcohol dependence among women is higher in Britain than anywhere in Europe. One in four adults in England drink to harmful levels, and one in 20 are "dependent drinkers", it said. Alcohol-related deaths have doubled since 1991 across the UK, and liver disease is now one of the "big five" killers, alongside heart and lung disease, cancer and strokes.