The Myth of Risks – David Spiegelhalter

Last year 509,090 people died in England and Wales, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just released full details of what they died of. For a statistician this means 346 riveting pages of morbid detail, ranging from the rare fatalities from hang-gliders (2), dog bites (4), lightning (0, down from 2 the previous year), men-in-their-40s on playground equipment (1) to the usual blockbusters such as ischaemic heart disease (76,985).

Twelve riders were killed after falling off their horse in 2008, the consequences of what David Nutt once called “equasy” — or the addiction to horse-riding. The sacked chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs got into trouble earlier in the year for comparing the risks of equasy with Ecstasy, which directly led to 27 deaths in 2006.

Since both have similar numbers of participants my guess is that Ecstasy pips horse-riding in the risk stakes by a length. But given that around 1,000,000 Ecstasy tablets are taken a week, these are not high risks compared to the effects of alcohol, and certainly not other Class A drugs with which Ecstasy is lumped.

In 2006 heroin was mentioned on 713 death certificates, and the British Crime Survey estimated that 41,000 people used heroin that year — this produces a (very) crude annual death rate of 1 in 58. Put another way, heroin users have roughly the same death rate as an average 65-year-old man or 71-year-old woman. You would have to go hang-gliding eight times a day, all year, to have a similar risk.