The Department of Health has launched a review of the million-plus patients addicted to prescribed drugs in the UK in a tacit admission that attempts to control the problem over the last two decades have failed.
An estimated 1.5 million people are addicted to prescription and over-the-counter drugs including benzodiazepine tranquillisers, sleeping pills such as zoplicone - implicated in the death of Hollywood star Heath Ledger - and painkillers containing codeine.
The review, which began in July, was disclosed in a Westminster hall debate last June but has not been formally announced. It followed a report by the House of Commons all-party group on drugs misuse which called for better training for doctors in the risks of over-prescribing, greater awareness of the scale of addiction and more centres for treatment.
On Tuesday, Lord Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, is to seek details of the Government review in the House of Lords and will say how the problem of addiction has impacted his own family.
He said: “Since January a member of my family has been suffering from acute withdrawal from this prescribed drug [a benzodiazepine]: his dreadful symptoms mean he is confined to his room, unable to work and attend to his family. He receives no government or medical support because there is none.”
Lord Montagu said the government should take “urgent action” to help victims of benzodiazepine withdrawal and develop a network of clinics to care for them. “I would like to see direct support for people who are victims like the member of my family,” he said.
The addictive properties of benzodiazepines and similar tranquillisers, for which 11 million prescriptions were written last year, were first recognised three decades ago when the best known among them - Valium - was widely prescribed for stress. It became known as “mother’s little helper”, after the Rolling Stones 1960s hit, because GPs handed out large quantities of the pills to women trapped with small children in high rise blocks.
In 1980, an item on Esther Rantzen’s BBC TV programme “That’s Life” detailing the difficulty some people had withrawing from Valium, provoked the biggest response in the programme’s history, exposing a problem on a huge scale that had gone unnoticed by doctors. GPs had until then assumed, when patients complained of symptoms of withdrawal, that this was the anxiety returning - and prescribed more drugs. “That’s life” was later celebrated as the TV programme that changed the course of medicine.
In 1988, doctors were warned by the Committee on Safety of Medicines that prescriptions for the benzodiazepines should be limited to a maximum of four weeks . The warning was re-iterated by Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer in 2004.
Campaigners say these measures have proved inadequate. The growth of on-line pharmacies, and the ease with which “legal” drugs can be obtained and used compared with the risks involved in illegal drug use, are contributing to the problem, they say.
Pam Armstrong, of the Council for Information on Tranquillisers and Antidepressants (CITA) in Liverpool said: “There are still lots and lots of patients being put on these drugs and kept on them for a long time. I have some sympathy with GPs - they get a lot of pressure from patients who want these drugs. But the problem has been ignored. These are patients who don’t go out mugging old ladies and creating trouble - and their needs are not being met.”
CITA has run clinics for addicted patients in GP surgeries across five primary care trusts in the north west for the last 15 years, helping wean patients off their drugs. This month the first private in-patient unit, the Sefton Suite, is due to open in Aintree, Liverpool. “We need services to be established on a national basis,” Ms Armstrong said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said prescribing of benzodiazepines had “declined substantially” in the last ten eyars.
“Misuse of any prescription medication can be extremely serious. Our main focus has been on prevention and we are currently looking at how we can further strengthen such measures. This includes reviewing prescribing guidelines and getting the full picture on over-the-counter and prescription drug dependence. We are also working closely with GPs to ensure they are fully aware of any potential side-effects from prescription drugs.”
Helpline - Council for Information on Tranquillisers and Antidepressants: 0151 932 0102 www.benzo.org.uk
Case study: 'My life has been shattered'
Matthew (not his real name), was prescribed Efexor, an antidepressant, and Clonazepam, a benzodiazepine, to help him sleep following the failure of a business venture in 2001.
He was living abroad but returned to Britain where the prescription was continued. “For seven years I was fine. I didn’t really think about the pills, I took them as vitamins. It was something I did at the end of the day.”
Earlier this year increasing fatigue prompted him to try and withdraw from them. His doctor advised a “cold turkey” approach involving a few days in hospital, after which he would be drug free.
“I went in as a happy confident person and in two days I was a train wreck. I felt I had woken up in a horror film, I couldn’t walk or think and I had lost my memory. It was indescribable torture.”
Nine months on, he is still trying to put his life back together. Married with two children, he has been unable to return to work.
“I am still terrified of going outside, I can’t think straight or concentrate and I have very bad depression. Every single stimulus seems scary and heightened. It is absolutely extraordinary a prescription drug can do this to you. My life has been shattered.”
“There is nowhere for me to go for support except to other sufferers on the internet and one or two people who have set up support groups round the country.”
“I have seen several doctors since and they cannot believe my doctor kept me on these drugs for seven years. I have lodged a formal complaint about him.”