Ministers are poised to demand a dramatic reduction in the millions of tranquillisers prescribed in the UK every year, amid growing concerns about the long-term effects on patients who become addicted to them.
A review of the problem of patient addiction – campaigners claim about 1.5 million people are affected – is expected to recommend a huge decrease in the availability of benzodiazepine tranquillisers, including Valium.
The last government ordered a review of addictive drugs supplied on prescription or over the counter, after reports that patients were becoming dependent on them, sometimes for decades. Critics claim too many doctors habitually prescribe them for stress, when alternative treatments, such as counselling and other "talking therapies", are more effective.
The coalition government has responded to the demand for reform, which could see millions shaved off the NHS budget. A Department of Health source said last night that the junior public health minister, Anne Milton, was "deeply sympathetic" to the plight of "involuntary tranquilliser addicts".
"This is something ministers have been concerned about for years. It is clear that too many of these drugs are being prescribed and that there are alternative treatments," the source said.
British doctors first began to prescribe benzodiazepines in significant numbers in the 1960s, when they were viewed as a benign treatment, becoming known by many as "mother's little helpers". Prescriptions peaked at more than 30 million a year in the late 1970s.
Years later, evidence emerged that they were addictive and that prolonged use causes symptoms which could result in patients being unable to work.
Now there is growing concern that prescriptions are rising again. Government figures show pharmacists dispensed almost 11.5 million prescriptions in 2008. The true figure will be higher, as this does not include prescriptions dispensed in hospitals. The total cost to the NHS of benzodiazepine addiction is put at up to £8bn a year.
The NHS estimates there are up to 200,000 illicit users of benzodiazepines – or "benzos" as they are known – in the UK, and their attractiveness as a street drug has sparked a thriving online trade. Frequently used as "uppers", or "downers" together with other drugs, they are listed as class-C drugs under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act.
But patients given lawful prescriptions for medical conditions who subsequently became addicted are causing greatest concern.
Dan Orgill, who was prescribed Librium for panic attacks five years ago, said the symptoms experienced while taking the drugs were far worse than his original complaint.
"I hold my hands up to the fact that I am an addict – but I am an addict because of the doctors," he said. "I got myself clean, and now I'm debilitated. I want to live without these drugs and without the withdrawal."
The IoS understands that government advisers have warned ministers they must prepare for a "short-term financial hit" if they want to drive through reforms, as NHS trusts need to increase alternative therapies if tranquilliser prescribing is to be slashed. They insist that reform would reap benefits in the form of financial savings and improved health for hundreds of thousands of people.
Michael Behan, of the campaign group Beat the Benzos, said more support for addicts attempting drug withdrawal was needed. "Withdrawal can take anything up to two years. People need constant reassurance," he said. "They get very ill during the process. They get anxious."
Mr Behan, a former teacher, was prescribed Ativan to treat his anxiety in 1981 and ended up being addicted for seven years. "I thought it was medicine. You can become addicted in about 10 days, but it can take you two years to get off them."
The Labour MP Jim Dobbin, chair of the all-party group on involuntary tranquilliser addiction, said: "If the Government is looking for ways of reducing the tax burden and getting people off benefits, this is an area they really must look to. There are about 1.5 million people across the country who have this problem, and many have had it for more than 20 years. If you tot that up, with the cost of support and benefits, quite apart from the human cost to people and their families, it is a huge amount of money."
Ms Milton said last night: "The department is currently reviewing all the scientific research and evidence on medicine addictions. We will also get more details about the prescribing of some drugs within the NHS and what treatment services are available, should people become addicted. I hope that, by the end of the year, we'll have the information we need to better help people who are addicted to painkillers and tranquillisers."
Additional reporting by Pavan Amara