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Christchurch Star
December 19, 2003
by Rachel Tiffen

Over half a million Kiwis were put under the spell of the addictive pills known as benzodiazepines this year, despite the drug group's reclassification as class C controlled drugs three years ago.

Benzodiazepines, also known as minor tranquillisers, have been peddled as miracle-working anti-anxiety drugs since the 1960s.

They are usually prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and as sleeping pills.

Benzodiazepines have been linked to damage to the brain and nervous system, and have been the focus of reclassification efforts in England.

Addiction support groups say those hooked on the drug group could suffer impaired memory and concentration, an inability to respond to everyday life normally, depression, loss of balance, impaired motor coordination, mood swings, irritability and outbursts of rage.

Benzodiazepine campaign and withdrawal support groups have sprung up around the world and overseas reports suggest the drugs are responsible for more deaths than heroin, ecstasy and cocaine combined.

Patients' Rights Advocacy founder Anna de Jonge said New Zealand had to follow England's lead and consider reclassifying benzodiazepines.

"I know of a number of people in New Zealand that have killed themselves on benzodiazepines, but their families don't want to tell anybody about it."

Doctors should warn patients of potential side effects of drugs being prescribed and drug companies should be legally required to produce consumer information with the drug, she said.

"The problem is that New Zealand doctors aren't compelled to report adverse effects to the Adverse Reactions Centre, so they don't."

International medical guidelines state benzodiazepines should be taken for no more four weeks - or addiction will occur.

Mrs de Jonge said she came across people daily who were being prescribed the drug without warning of its addictive nature.

"People's lives are being ruined by these drugs and, instead of giving their patients withdrawal advice, doctors compound their problems by prescribing even more addictive drugs," she said.

Mrs de Jonge pointed to a Medical Council report written in 1991 that said any practitioner who prescribed an addictive, controlled drug to a person believed to be dependent on that drug was committing an offence against the Misuse of Drugs Act.

And, no progress has been made in regulating consumer information.

A consumer information code of conduct was devised by the Ministry of Health two years ago to put an ethical obligation on drug companies to provide information with their products.

Former Ministry of Health safety and regulation advisor, Bob Boyd, said at the time, that the code would eventually be made compulsory.

Two years on, and no one at the Ministry knew anything about the code.

A formal statement was issued saying the provision of consumer information had not been made compulsory but would be debated by the joint therapeutic agency with Australia.

The statement said pharmaceutical companies often provided consumer information in product packaging.

Mrs de Jonge said doctors and drug companies were more concerned about their pockets, than the overall welfare of their patients.

"The voluntary sector are getting people off drugs, and yet doctors, pharmaceutical companies and people in the health industry are laughing all the way to the bank.

"Patients often end up finding out about their addiction from me."

Help for people trying to recover from benzodiazepine tranquilliser addiction is also available from Tranquilliser Recovery and New Existence (TRANX) - a support group operating in Christchurch and Auckland.

Dr Pippa Mckay, a member of the New Zealand Medical Council and practising GP at Ilam Medical Centre, said doctors were much more aware of addictive nature of benzodiazepines.

She said neither she nor her colleagues prescribed the drugs for long periods of time. However, she admitted there were those out there that did.

"I certainly see it as far less of a problem than it was, but there are some giving out truckloads of them."

Rachel Tiffen
Email: rachel_tiffen@christchurchstar.co.nz
Christchurch Star

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