John Sandwich: The coalition says this will be a priority. That's what the last government said, too

Sunday 07 November 2010 01:00

Last month I asked the Government what progress they had made with their review of policy on addiction to, and withdrawal from, tranquillisers and other prescribed drugs such as Valium and Ativan. After all, it is nearly 40 years since Professors Peter Tyrer and Malcolm Lader identified problems of addiction in the 1970s, and 25 years since Professor Heather Ashton of Newcastle University and others published their research, as a result of which GPs and NHS staff for a time became much more aware of the dangers.

The reason I put the question is that a relative of mine has been badly let down by the medical profession, which originally prescribed him clonazepam (a benzodiazepine, like Valium) as a sleeping aid in 2002. For the past 19 months, he has lived a half life in his room, suffering acute psychological and physical symptoms such as agoraphobia, panic attacks, muscle pain, insomnia, dizziness, blurred vision, tinnitus, sweating and nausea. He has been unable to work or to contribute fully to the life of his young family.

My question, and the debate which followed in the House of Lords, led to a number of predictable ministerial promises.

They claim drug dependency will become one of their priorities. They will conduct a literature review and an "audit of selected primary care trust prescribing data". They will map the available services and consider how PCTs might support them. They say they will include prescribed drugs in a new drugs strategy and a public health White Paper, both to be published later this year.

I hope I am wrong, but I am not confident that very much will happen. The last government made similar promises, and yet today there is only one NHS-funded support centre, in Oldham, despite the fact that these patients have become addicted as a result of drugs prescribed via the NHS. Few people realise that the symptoms during withdrawal are in most cases worse than those from illegal drugs, and there are many thousands more prescribed drug victims than there are heroin addicts.

What, for example, has been done about warnings? Doctors regularly ignore the British National Formulary guidelines. Labels are inadequate: they should be as prominent as cigarette warnings. The current advice is that addiction can develop within two to four weeks. And yet Professor Steven Field, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, warned last year that patients can "get hooked" after only three or four days.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction is seeking to confront the MRC and to achieve transparency in the health service. Following today's revelations, someone in authority must take responsibility.

The Earl of Sandwich is the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction

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