More than 3% of sudden deaths in Europe are related to cocaine use and many of them are brought on by a "lethal cocktail" of the drug, alcohol and cigarettes, scientists said.
Results of a study on sudden death show there is no such thing as safe recreational cocaine use, the researchers said, and suggest the 12 million Europeans who use cocaine are putting their lives on the line.
"The notion that recreational cocaine use is 'safe' should be dispelled, since even small amounts may have catastrophic consequences, including sudden death," said Joaquin Lucena, head of forensic pathology at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Seville, Spain.
Lucena and his team studied sudden deaths in south-west Spain between 2003 and 2006 and found 3.1% of them were related to taking cocaine, which had damaged the heart and arteries.
The researchers also found all the cocaine sudden deaths were in men aged between 21 and 45, and 81% of them also smoked, while 76% had also drunk alcohol.
Ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol, enhances the high users get from cocaine and softens the subsequent low. But both smoking and alcohol are also linked with heart disease.
"The combination of cocaine with either or both of these habits can be considered as a lethal cocktail that promotes the development of premature heart disease," Lucena wrote in the study, which was published in the European Heart Journal.
Cocaine use on the increase
Lucena also said he believed his findings could safely be extrapolated to much of the rest of Europe, suggesting cocaine use is a significant public health threat.
"Cocaine abuse is a growing public health issue in Europe and we can only monitor its prevalence by performing these detailed autopsies whenever someone dies suddenly," he wrote.
Experts at the Spanish Institute estimate about 12 million Europeans use cocaine - about 3.7% of the total adult population aged 15 to 64.
More than 5% of adults in Britain, Spain and Italy say they have taken cocaine at least once in their lives and use is higher among those aged between 15 and 34.
"As the estimated number of European young adult cocaine consumers is similar in Spain, UK and Italy, there is no reason to consider that cocaine-related sudden deaths in UK and Italy would be different to what we have found in our research in south-west Spain," said Lucena.
Not a safe party drug
Fotini Rozakeas of the British Heart Foundation charity said the study showed the need "to dispel the myth that cocaine is a 'safe party drug'."
"The potential deadly consequences from cocaine use can happen to anyone who takes it, even in previously young healthy people with no history of heart disease," she said. "The reality is that there are risks every time you use it.
Scientists are working on vaccines and drugs to try to help cocaine and other drug users kick the habit, but their work is still in the early stages. – (Kate Kelland/Reuters Health, January 2010)