Professionals, students and clubbers are taking crack cocaine after the drug started to become 'fashionable', a Government review has been told.
Suggestions of a new 'hidden cohort' of crack users were flagged up to a joint Home Office and Public Health England inquiry.
Participants linked the rise to a string of possible factors including aggressive marketing of the drug and shrinking police presences on the streets.
Officials carried out interviews and focus groups with people in treatment for crack problems - referred to as 'service users'. One service user is quoted as saying: 'My daughter's 17 and her friends are using it at the parties she goes to' [File photo]
The investigation also heard claims that crack use has 'skyrocketed'.
Officials carried out interviews and focus groups with people in treatment for crack problems - referred to as 'service users', drug treatment workers and police officers in six areas of England.
Latest estimates show a 'statistically significant' increase of 8.5% in the number of crack cocaine users in England between 2011/2012 and 2016/2017, from 166,640 to 180,748, according to the review.
One service user who took part in the study said crack use is 'out of hand; it's an epidemic. Use is skyrocketing'.
The investigation identified several factors which may have influenced the rise in crack use, including increased availability and affordability of crack and 'aggressive marketing' of the drug [File photo]
While feedback from all participants suggested that the increase has been seen mainly among existing heroin users, the study noted that 'there have also been suggestions of a new, 'hidden' group of crack users who are not heroin users and who have not engaged with treatment services'.
Service users reported that crack use was 'beginning to become more acceptable, even fashionable among groups who would not previously have taken it', the report said.
It added: 'This included professionals, students and clubbers. In one area with a large university student population, there was a view that dealers were successfully infiltrating these groups.'
The inquiry said more research was needed to explore the characteristics of 'hidden' crack users who are not in treatment.
Officials also heard claims that young people were starting to use crack, with one service user quoted as saying: 'My daughter's 17 and her friends are using it at the parties she goes to.'
In three of the areas studied, there was evidence of 'out of town' dealers from crime gangs based in cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham infiltrating the local market.
In the other areas, police and treatment workers believed local criminal groups were too well established to allow so-called 'county lines' gangs to gain a foothold.
Treatment workers and service users observed that there were generally fewer police on the streets, while some officers reported that their forces no longer had dedicated drugs squads.
The report said: 'Participants in several areas said that deals were often carried out quite publicly, and some dealers made little effort to hide their activities.'
Suggestions of a new 'hidden cohort' of crack users were flagged up to a joint Home Office and Public Health England inquiry. Participants linked the rise to a string of possible factors including aggressive marketing of the drug and shrinking police presences on the streets [File photo]
It was also suggested by some respondents that the stigma associated with using crack had declined, while the analysis noted that global production of cocaine has surged since 2013.
Rosanna O'Connor, director for drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: 'This report will come as no surprise to those working on the front line, who will have seen first-hand this surge in crack use in their communities.'
She called for 'more attractive' and tailored support to meet the specific needs of crack users, and improved links from the criminal justice system into treatment services.
Minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability Victoria Atkins said: 'The Government is committed to tackling the illicit drugs trade, protecting the most vulnerable and helping those with a drug dependency to recover.'