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January 9, 2007

School of Neurology, Neurobiology and Psychiatry,
The Royal Victoria Infirmary
Queen Victoria Road
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4LP

Professor C Heather Ashton, DM, FRCP

Rosie Winterton,
Department of Health,
Richmond House,
79 Whitehall,

9th January 2007

Dear Rosie,

I have been forwarded your letter to Michael Meacher dated 14th December 2006 (Ref P00000160942) in which you repeat your statement that "those who misuse benzodiazepines have access to a range of services both in the primary and secondary care settings to meet their needs". This is the same well-worn and inaccurate statement that you made in the letter to Beat the Benzos representatives after our meeting with you in the House of Commons in 2004 and it appeared again in a letter from Patricia Hewitt to Margaret Beckett dated 20th September 2006 (Ref P00000139311).

You do not seem to understand or acknowledge the distinction between long-term prescribed benzodiazepine users and those who misuse or abuse the drugs recreationally, along with opiates, cocaine and other "hard drugs". The problems and needs of prescribed benzodiazepine users were described in detail to you in our meeting in 2004. The only one of our suggested recommendations that you supported was to persuade the Chief Medical Officer to send a letter to doctors asking them to reduce their prescribing of benzodiazepines. At the meeting I personally offered to assist the CMO in drafting such a letter. This offer was ignored and his badly worded letter was a predictable disaster which resulted in many general practitioners abruptly reducing benzodiazepine prescriptions to long-term patients and some PCTs reducing their budgeting for such drugs - with similar unfortunate effects on patients.

It is a great pity that you have chosen not to keep abreast of the situation and have apparently ignored again the recommendations made in our All Party Group in Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction meeting at the House of Commons on 7th November 2006, which was organised and attended by several MPs including Jim Dobbin, John Grogan, Jim Cousins and others, as well as many doctors with long experience of the adverse effects of prescribed benzodiazepines, including Professor Peter Tyrer and myself, and a large audience of prescribed users and other interested parties. If you were genuinely interested as Health Minister you could also have had access to my talk which reiterated the same problems as were discussed with you in 2004. 1 enclose a copy, which is also available on www.benzo.org.uk.

As you will see (if you read the talk) I stated again that your repeated assertions are simply not true. Prescribed benzodiazepine users do not have proper access to primary health care services because general practitioners lack the expertise and time to withdraw long-term prescribed patients from benzodiazepines, and the waiting list for psychological therapists, who are in any case not properly trained, is up to two years in most PCTs. These prescribed patients also do not have access to secondary health care services: they are regularly refused treatment because they are not abusing opiates or other hard drugs.

Your attitude and your repeated statements lead one to despair of politicians. Like journalists they seem only interested in the subject for one moment. They may pay lip service but then turn to other matters. I understand that politics and academic medicine are worlds apart but feel that your interest in prescribed benzodiazepine users is facile and so far futile. As Health Minister the public expects more of you.

Yours sincerely,

C.H. Ashton

cc. Barry Haslam
Michael Meacher, MP
Patricia Hewitt, Health Minister
Jim Dobbin, MP

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response to Michael Meacher MP (opens in new window)

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