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The Sunday Times,
August 25, 2013
by Jack Grimston

NEARLY 200 women a day are admitted to hospital with poisoning from drugs including painkillers, tranquillisers and antidepressants, according to official figures that expose the scale of harm caused by prescription drugs.

The admissions include 24,000 women a year suffering ill-effects from paracetamol, as well as more than 10,000 poisoned by antidepressants.

Some of the patients have self-harmed, while others have taken accidental overdoses or suffered from dependency or allergy. The number of patients dwarfs those suffering poisoning from illegal drugs, and in many cases they have been addicted to prescription drugs for decades.

Experts blame the number of admissions for tranquilliser and antidepressant poisoning on a growing cultural acceptance of prescription drug use. Over-prescription by doctors has also been blamed, along with intense marketing by drug companies and the easy availability of painkillers in supermarkets.

There are an estimated 18m prescriptions a year written for sleeping pills and tranquillisers alone, with an estimated 1m-1.5m people dependent on prescription medicine.

The new figures on hospital admissions are contained in a parliamentary answer given by Anna Soubry, the health minister, to Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. They include data only for women.

In 2011-12, the most recent year for which figures are given, 69,869 women were admitted to hospital with drug poisoning, a rise of more than 10% in five years. Of those, the largest number - 24,112 - were suffering the effects of paracetamol and similar drugs.

The number of admissions for antidepressant poisoning was nearly 11,000, up by 55% in five years. More than 8,000 had taken benzodiazepines or other sedatives.

By contrast, just 243 patients were admitted for heroin poisoning and 186 for the effects of cocaine.

Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on tranquilliser addiction, said: "My own view is that it is the power of the pharmaceutical industry [to blame] and the medical profession ... who think that the way to handle people's problems is to put them on these things."

Barbara Bell, 63, a market researcher from Stone, Staffordshire, started taking the tranquilliser diazepam to help her after her sister died.

"I just thought it'd get me through a bad period in my life. That was when the trouble was started," said Bell.

Three years later, after becoming dependent on the drug and suffering severe side-effects during attempts to come off it, Bell is still in so much difficulty that she is housebound most of the time.

Additional reporting: Eoin Mason

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