Leah Sarah Betts (1 November 1977 – 16 November 1995) was a schoolgirl from Latchingdon in Essex, England, United Kingdom. She is notable for the extensive media coverage and moral panic that followed her death fifteen days after her 18th birthday. On 11 November, she took an MDMA ("ecstasy") tablet, and then drank approximately 7 litres of water in a 90 minute period. Four hours later, she collapsed into a coma, from which she did not recover.
Initial press and public reaction
The press reported that Betts' death was an example of the dangers of illegal drugs in general, and MDMA in particular. Her 45-year-old mother Dorothy May Betts had died of a heart attack in 1992, but, otherwise Betts was from a quite ordinary family; she lived with her father Paul Betts (an ex-police officer), her stepmother (a nurse) and her brother William, who was born seven years after her. The fact that her life reflected so many other middle-class families in Britain may have contributed to the sense of shock around the country after her death. It was suggested that the pill she had taken was from a "contaminated batch." Not long afterward, a major 1,500-site poster campaign used a photograph of a smiling Leah Betts (not a picture of her on her deathbed, as some sources claim) with the caption Sorted: Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts. The campaign made no mention of the crucial role water intoxication played in her death. Alternative rock band Chumbawamba responded with their own "anti-poster" reading Distorted: you are just as likely to die from eating a bay leaf as from an ecstasy tablet.
Death and inquest
Betts died on the morning of 16 November 1995, within five days of being admitted to hospital, after her life support machine was switched off. Her funeral took place on 1 December 1995 at Christ Church, Latchingdon. She was buried alongside her mother at St Mary Magdalen church in Great Burstead, Essex.
A subsequent inquest determined that her death was actually not directly due to MDMA consumption, but rather the result of the large quantity of water she had consumed, apparently in observation of an advisory warning commonly given to ravers to drink water to avoid dehydration resulting from the exertion of dancing continuously for hours. Leah had been at home with friends and had not been dancing, yet consumed about 7 litres (12 pints) of water in less than 90 minutes, resulting in water intoxication and hyponatremia, which in turn led to serious swelling of the brain, irreparably damaging it. However, SIADH caused by the MDMA, reducing her ability to urinate, may have exacerbated her hyponatremia. At the inquest it was stated by toxicologist Professor John Henry, who had previously warned the public of the danger of MDMA causing death by dehydration, "If Leah had taken the drug alone she might well have survived. If she had drunk the amount of water alone she would have survived."
Essex Police assigned 35 officers and huge resources to track the suppliers of the tablet Betts had taken, but after an investigation that cost £300,000, the only people charged were four of her friends who had been present at the house, two of whom accepted police cautions with the other two prosecuted. Of these, one received a conditional discharge, while the other was acquitted after a retrial.
After her death, the media focused on the putative fact that it was the first time she had taken the drug. It arose later — though it was much less publicised — that she had taken the drug at least three times previously. Her father, Paul, subsequently became a vocal public campaigner against drug abuse. He and his wife were present at the press conference at which Barry Legg MP launched his Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Act, which allowed councils to close down licensed venues if the police "believed" controlled drugs were being used "at or near" the premises.
It was reported that the £1m Sorted posters campaign was the pro-bono work of three advertising companies: Booth Lockett and Makin (media buyers), Knight Leech and Delaney (advertising agency), and FFI (youth marketing consultants). Booth Lockett and Makin counted brewers Löwenbräu as one of its major clients, at a time when the alcohol industry saw increasing MDMA use as a threat to profits. The other two companies represented energy drink Red Bull, a professional relationship that had earned Knight Leech and Delaney £5 million and was described by one of FFI's executives who remarked that, "We do PR for Red Bull for example and we do a lot of clubs. It's very popular at the moment because it's a substitute for taking ecstasy."
- Anna Wood, an Australian teenager who died in similar circumstances three weeks prior to Betts' death
- Moral panic
- Recreational drug use
- War on drugs
- Responsible drug use
- Sasha Rodriguez
- Rachel Whitear
- Deaths England and Wales 1984-2006
- Collin, Matthew and Godfrey, John (1998). Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House (2nd edition) Serpent's Tail. page 300. ISBN 978-1-85242-604-0.
- Rose strangled by a weed
- Carey, Jim. "Recreational Drug Wars: Alcohol Versus Ecstasy". www.ecstacy.org. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
- Drugs — facing facts. The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce. 2007. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-901469-60-1. Retrieved 2009-09-04.
- Carey, Jim (March 1997). Recreational Drug Wars: Alcohol Versus Ecstasy — referenced from the book Ecstasy Reconsidered, Nicholas Saunders, 1997.
- Blackman, Shane J (2004). Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. McGraw-Hill International. p. 172. ISBN 978-0-335-20072-6. Retrieved 2009-04-11.
- "Leah's father tells of his 'little ship' lost to ecstasy". The Independent. 2 December 1995.
- "1995: Ecstasy pill puts party girl in coma". BBC News. 13 November 1995.
- The Times:Obituary — 14 May 2007
- "The legacy of tragic Leah". BBC. 2005-11-16. Retrieved 2009-10-31.
- BBC On This Day, 13 Nov 1995
- Collin and Godfrey, pages 302-303
- Collin and Godfrey, page 302
- Collin and Godfrey, page 309
- Bennett, Will (8 December 1995). "Leah Betts link to triple killing-Drugs squad probe gangland murder". The Independent. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
- Her best friend talks to the Observer 10 years on
- TheDEA.org: Hyponatremia. An account of Leah Betts's death with some discussion of the medical mechanisms of hyponatremia-induced brain death.