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By Axel Bugge
LISBON (Reuters) - Drug overdose deaths in Europe rose six percent to 8,441 in 2015, rising for the third consecutive year, driven by increasing use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, Europe's Lisbon-based drug monitoring agency said on Tuesday.
The growing use of opioids has grabbed attention in recent years as deaths from such drugs, both illicit and prescription, in the United States have reached what many experts call epidemic levels.
The European drug agency's latest available data on overdose deaths shows they rose from 7,950 in 2014 and 7,345 in 2013. Opioids, which also include morphine and heroin, were related to 81 percent of all the deaths. Deaths from overdoses had been on a downward trend from 2008 until 2012.
The agency warned that drug-related deaths in Europe could be much higher due to "systematic under-reporting in some countries" and delays in reporting.
Still, Europe's drug deaths remain far lower than in the United States, where 52,000 people died of overdoses in 2015, 33,000 of which were related to opioids.
The agency said a big difference between the United States and Europe is the regulatory approach to prescribing opioid painkillers.
"However, the possibility of under-reporting cannot be dismissed, as Europeans experiencing problems with prescription medicines may access different services than those used by illicit drug users," the report said.
It also said demand for opioids now represented 38 percent of all requests for drug treatment in the European Union, indicating rising opioid use.
"In both Europe and North America, the recent emergence of highly potent new synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl derivatives, is causing considerable concern," the report said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic pain medication, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and has been used increasingly as a recreational drug.
The report found that the mean age of death from drug overdoses for men was 38 and 41 for women.
The United Kingdom has, by far, the largest number of overdose deaths in Europe, and reached 2,655 in 2015. In Germany, which was second, overdose deaths were 1,226.
(Reporting By Axel Bugge, editing by Pritha Sarkar)