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Tranquillisers 'more lethal than heroin'

The Observer, Sunday, November 5, 2000
by Tracy McVeigh

Sue Bibby was addicted
to tranquillisers for 23
years. 'The withdrawal
was horrific,' she says

Campaigners claim drug firms withheld vital data on risks of benzodiazepine tranquillisers that hooked millions

They were the discovery of the age, mother's little helper, the pre-Prozac twentieth-century wonderdrugs, and routinely handed out by GPs to depressed, anxious patients. But since they came on the market in the late fifties, tens of thousands of people have become addicted to them and hundreds have died.

Last week an international conference of scientists and campaigners called for a rethink of the use of a group of tranquilliser drugs known as benzodiazepines. Campaigners now believe that for 20 years pharmaceutical companies deliberately withheld research data that would have highlighted the drugs more dangerous effects.

At 14, Sue Bibby suffered recurrent nightmares that were so distressing she went to a doctor who prescribed Valium, a benzodiazepine. For 23 years and in two pregnancies, Sue was unwittingly addicted to the tranquilliser. It was against medical advice that she decided to stop taking Valium seven years ago. 'The withdrawal was horrific, utterly awful. It took me years to regain the cognitive abilities I had been living without since I was a child,' she said.

Now 44, Sue believes the doctors who prescribed the drugs were wrong and that at least one of her children has suffered long-term effects. 'My GP told me taking Valium while pregnant was safe. Now I find scientific research has shown that not to be the case. My son has suffered behavioural problems that may be due to the drugs I took, or to the fact that my parenting skills were inhibited by the chemical cosh I was under,' she said.

Sue is one of millions of people who have become addicted to, and damaged by, the tranquillisers. 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 only 1,623 deaths. Yet benzodiazepines remain categorised as class-C drugs.

The conference on the dangers of drugs was held in the UK to mark the launch of a campaign that calls for a full inquiry into the widespread use of benzodiazepines over the past 40 years and for compensation and help for those who became addicted, often for many years.

Last year an attempt to take a group court action against two pharmaceutical companies failed due to withdrawal of legal aid. A test case by businessman Iain Caldwell is due before the Scottish courts early next year.

The conference, attended by scientists from the US, Sweden, New Zealand, Belgium, South Africa and the UK, heard from those who blame pharmaceutical companies that, until recently, did not make available in this country the full data on side-effects which were available in the US. Consequently, when side effects were reported by patients to GPs, they were mistaken for worsening symptoms and doses of drugs often increased.

Phil Woolas, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, who chaired the conference, became involved in the 'anti-benzos' campaign after one of his constituents told him of the brain damage he had suffered after 10 years of addiction to Lorazepam.

'Benzodiazepines are the iceberg of despair for millions,' Woolas said. 'Official figures show that 17 million prescriptions were made last year, despite persistent medical advice regarding their dangers. I hope to highlight the injustice suffered by people taking these drugs.'

In 1994 the Department of Health issued guidelines on prevention of benzodiazepine dependence, yet many GPs are ignoring the advice. There is widespread failure to adhere to the 1988 Committee of Safety of Medicines guidelines to prescribe them for no more than four weeks.

Charles Medawar, of Social Audit Ltd, who spoke at the conference, says: 'Dependence on benzodiazepines remains a huge and neglected problem, all the more serious because it could have been avoided.

'The lessons have yet to be learned...It is really an indictment of the medical establishment's failure to listen to users.'

Drugs and Dangers

What are benzodiazepines?

A large group of commonly prescribed tranquillisers including Xanax, Lexotan, Librium, Klonopin, Tranxene, Valium, Rohypnol, Dalmane, Dormonoct, Ativan, Temazepam, Halcion.

How many people are given these drugs every year?

Seventeen million people were legally prescribed benzodiazepines in 1999. They are normally given to people suffering from anxiety conditions, particularly panic disorder, general anxiety and sometimes - as with Klonopin - epilepsy. They are also muscle relaxants.

How many get addicted?

Campaigners say addiction can follow 14 days' regular use at 'therapeutic levels'. They say there is a 50 per cent chance of developing dependency after six months' use and after a year it is highly likely.

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