Health Check: How tranquillisers turn users into killers
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Tuesday 27 October 1998
Millions of people have, of course, taken Valium or some similar tranquilliser, and then settled themselves in a small metal box and spun through the world in their double cocoon composed of one physical barrier and one chemical. But last week researchers from the University of Dundee reported that drowsiness caused by benzodiazepine tranquillisers, of which Valium is the best known, contribute to over 1,500 accidents and more than 100 deaths on the roads each year.
What is remarkable about these findings is that they have taken more than three decades to emerge. The benzodiazepines were introduced in the Sixties and have presumably been causing mayhem on the roads ever since. It seems reasonable to assume, on the basis of this research, that the lives of several thousand people might have been saved if we had drawn the obvious conclusion from the drowsiness that benzodiazepines cause and insisted that patients take other means of transport.
Dr Tom MacDonald, who led the study by the university's medicines monitoring unit, which was published in The Lancet, said: "These drugs have always carried the rather vague warning that they may cause drowsiness and may affect skilled tasks such as driving. Users must be given clear advice not to drive."
This is not the first time that the benzodiazepines, for which 18 million prescriptions were issued in 1997, have been suspected of causing harm. In a now famous edition of That's Life, circa 1980, Esther Rantzen invited patients who claimed to have become addicted to Valium and other tranquillisers to describe their experiences.
Up until that point benzodiazepines had been regarded as wonder drugs by GPs, who handed them out like Smarties to women with small children living in urban tower blocks who were struggling to raise their families on meagre social security benefits. The doctors had dismissed their patients' stories of addiction, believing that the agitation that seemed often to accompany cessation of the drugs was a sign not of withdrawal symptoms but of the return of the anxiety for which the drugs had originally been prescribed.
When Esther Rantzen appealed for other patients with similar experiences to contact the programme, the response was so overwhelming that the doctors were forced to think again. Hundreds of thousands of people were eventually recognised to be addicted to tranquillisers and had to be painfully weaned off them, and the prescribing advice was changed. The committee on safety of medicines now recommends that they be taken for short periods of two to four weeks only, to treat anxiety that is "severe, disabling or subjecting the individual to unacceptable distress."
The episode remains one of the best examples of how patients recognised a problem before their doctors. Richard Asher, the eminent physician and father of the actress, Jane, repeatedly reminded doctors that they should listen to what their patients told them, however outlandish or improbable, as it frequently turned out to be true.
The new evidence that tranquillisers are a menace on the roads illustrates another truth - the need for constant monitoring of the effects of drugs, even decades after their introduction. It also raises a question. Why do we in Britain not run campaigns about the dangers of driving on tranquillisers - as well as other drowsiness-inducing drugs - as is done in Sweden?
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
Seinfeld is laughing all the way to the bank: TV show generates $3.1bn in repeat fees since final episode
Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl: First look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Blade Runner sequel: Harrison Ford confirmed to return with Denis Villeneuve directing
All fiction follows one of six basic storylines, according to new research
House of Cards season 3 premiere, review: Has Frank Underwood gone soft?
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia