The Department of Health is demanding action to curb addiction to prescription drugs after a leap in prescribing rates for powerful painkillers and tranquillisers.
Officials have appealed to doctors, drug agencies and regulators for greater "vigilance" because of fears that Britain could go the way of the US, where deaths involving opioid analgesics rose more than threefold in the last decade to almost 15,000 in 2008.
British GPs' prescriptions for opioid painkillers have risen sixfold since 1991 to 1.4 billion a year, according to the National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse. More than 500 million prescriptions a year are written for sedatives, sleeping pills and tranquillisers, and the prescribing of benzodiazepine tranquillisers for anxiety has also risen.
Departmental officials and doctors fear the problem of addiction to prescription drugs and deaths from overdose are being hidden in the UK because information is not being collected.
The Department of Health has agreed with clinicians, addiction specialists, NHS regulators and drug agencies to step up monitoring to ensure prescription drug abuse does not go undetected. They intend to review what progress has been made, if any, in the New Year.
A report by the US Centres for Disease Control published last week said abuse of prescription painkillers had reached "epidemic" levels in the US. The problem was highlighted on Monday, when Conrad Murray, personal physician to Michael Jackson, was found guilty of giving the singer an overdose of the powerful anaesthetic propofol to help him sleep.
Deaths from prescription drugs in the US are more common than deaths from HIV and from liver disease caused by alcohol abuse.
Benzodiazepines are addictive and guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence says prescriptions should be limited to at most four weeks but the review found over a third of prescriptions were for more than eight weeks.
Only 2 per cent (3,735 patients) of patients in drug-treatment services were addicted to prescription drugs alone. But the authors said this was likely to be the tip of the iceberg as most would seek treatment from their GP.
Dr Cathy Stannard, a consultant in pain medicine at North Bristol NHS Trust, said: "The question everyone wants an answer to is: why are the big problems in the US not apparent here? A programme of work is under way by all the stakeholders to monitor the statistics and look at guidelines on prescribing and other measures."
She added: "What we don't want is a crackdown on these drugs because of the fear of addiction. There has to be a balance – these drugs are important and help a lot of people."
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