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1.5 Million patients at risk from danger pills
Tranquillisers are linked to brain damage
Sunday Express, May 13, 2001
by Lucy Johnston, Health Editor
POTENTIALLY lethal drugs are being prescribed long-term to people – when they should not be taken for more than four weeks.
The sedatives are taken by 1.5 million people in Britain, despite Government guidelines imposing the four-week limit.
The drugs, known as benzodiazepines, were launched as a wonder cure for anxiety during the Sixties.
But according to Government figures, they kill more people than heroin and ecstasy and cocaine combined.
They have been linked with damage to the brain and nervous system. They can also lead to tremors, palpitations and muscle pain.
The time limit was imposed 13 years ago but a new survey reveals there has been a boom in the tranquilliser "trade" and a persistence in long-term prescriptions.
The situation is described as a "disaster" by Professor Louis Appleby the National Director for Mental Health.
An expose tonight on BBC TV's Panorama programme, The Tranquilliser Trap, follows an investigation by the Sunday Express last October which revealed that millions of people were being prescribed the drugs without being told of their potentially catastrophic effects.
Our report showed two former medical directors of drug company Wyeth had grave concerns about the long-term use of one of the most popular tranquillisers, now marketed as lorazepam. Doctor Thomas Harry who masterminded the clinical trials for the drug, claimed Wyeth should have been aware of potential dangers. And Dr Deepak Malhotra has said the firm failed to warn the public.
But a spokesman for Wyeth said: "While Wyeth sympathises with those patients whose illnesses have clearly caused them considerable distress and difficulties in life, the company firmly believes that there is no medical or scientific basis to substantiate allegations in this regard made against benzodiazepine products."
High profile users of these and similar drugs have included TV presenter Paula Yates, actresses Liz Taylor and Judy Garland and comedian Freddie Starr.
One user Barry Haslam, 58, of Oldham, Greater Manchester claims he became addicted to lorazepam following a nervous breakdown. He said that he had violent mood swings and memory loss so severe that he has "lost" 10 years of his life.
Campaigners want the drugs reclassified to reflect how dangerous they are. Between 1990 and 1996, benzodiazepine drugs caused 1,810 deaths and the class-A drugs cocaine, heroin and methadone caused 1,623 deaths. Yet benzodiazepines remain categorised as class-C drugs.
It is estimated that more than a third of Britain's adult population is on prescribed tranquillisers, anti-depressants or sleeping pills.
Between 1994 and 1999, there was an increase of 13 per cent in the number of prescriptions dispensed and there are now approximately 530 million items prescribed yearly.
Jim Kennedy spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "There is still a significant problem with benzodiazepines. We would have liked it to have been solved 20 years ago."
See Sunday Express Report, October 29, 2000
See Sunday Express Report, July 22, 2001
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