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Addictive pills 'handed out like lollies'

The Dominion, Wellington, New Zealand
Tuesday, May 29, 2001
by Christine Langdon
Political Reporter

New Zealand's dependency on a group of addictive anxiety pills known as "mother's little helpers" has barely dropped since their classification as class C controlled drugs two years ago, Health Ministry figures show.

Patients' Rights Advocacy says patients are hooked on the tranquillisers, Benzodiazepines, because doctors still hand them out like lollies.

In a letter to the Heath Ministry last week, a group called Patients' Rights Advocacy called for tighter controls on the drugs, which it says many patients only take because doctors are not up front about the risks.

It wants them classified class A, and their packaging to carry mandatory warnings about the risk of addiction and side effects.

Benzodiazepines, which were touted as a wonder-cure for anxiety in the 1960s, are addictive and have been linked with damage to the brain and nervous system. As well as anxiety and sleeplessness, they can be used to treat epilepsy, mania, psychedelic states and muscle spasms.

They were reclassified from prescription drugs to class C drug in January 1999, which put limits on manufacture, distribution and prescribing.

Health Ministry guidelines say prescriptions should be limited to two to four weeks because of the high addiction risk.

Figures obtained by Green Party health spokeswoman Sue Kedgley show Benzodiazepines prescriptions dropped marginally from 469,583 in 1998 to 463,312 last year.

The figures indicated doctors had not changed prescribing habits, Mrs Kedgley said. "My concern is for people who are being prescribed these routinely month after month and who are not being informed about the huge risk and side effects."

Overseas reports suggest Benzodiazepines are responsible for more death than heroin, Ecstasy and cocaine combined.

Patients' Rights Advocacy founder Anna de Jonge said she daily had reports of patients who had been prescribed Benzodiazepines for months on end, or had not been warned of the dangers.

Class C classification did not give patients adequate protection, she said. "Doctors are not taking notice. They need to be class A controlled drugs so if doctors prescribe them they have to fill in a form each time and it has got to be notified to the Health Ministry."

Patients' Rights Advocacy was concerned that pharmaceutical companies were not required to include consumer information with all drugs prescribed, she said. "If they were required to do that people would read that if they took these drugs they could become a drug addict and they wouldn't take them."

General Practitioner Council chairman Philip Rushmer said yesterday more time was needed for prescription levels to fall because addicted patients could not be taken off the pills overnight.

"In the early days doctors tended to prescribe them for a longer period of time and addiction was really quite a significant problem. It is my understanding that doctors are now much more aware of the addictive nature of Benzodiazepines and how very hard it is to get patients off them once they've been on them for any length of time."

Health Ministry chief adviser for safety and regulation Bob Boyd said doctors were ethically obliged to warn patients of the risks and could be reported to the Health and Disability Commissioner for failing to do so.

The ministry would have liked to have seen a bigger drop in prescriptions, he said.

Reclassifying Benzodiazepines as class A would be inappropriate, he said. However, there were moves to give users more information. The ministry had developed a voluntary code of conduct for drug companies to provide consumer information, and would eventually make it compulsory.

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