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Sunday Express, January 27, 2008
by Lucy Johnston

THE drugs taken by Hollywood star Heath Ledger in the hours before his death are highly addictive and linked to at least 200 deaths a year in England alone.

The Brokeback Mountain actor was found surrounded by bottles of benzodiazepines - known as benzos or "celebrity sedatives".

Benzos, which include Valium and Ativan, are used as sleeping pills and many users become "accidental addicts".

More deaths are linked with benzos than all the abused drugs except heroin and morphine.

A Sunday Express inquiry has found up to a million Britons are hooked on benzos, which are being prescribed for months and even years - way beyond the safe period of two to four weeks.

Rising numbers of users are buying them on the black market.

There is now such concern about this class of drugs that next week questions will be tabled in Parliament.

What exactly killed Ledger will not be known until the toxicology reports are published but one of the drugs he is believed to have taken, Ativan, can suppress breathing.

Lying by the 28-year-Australian's body in his 12,000 a month Manhattan apartment were also bottles of the benzos Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Restoril (temazepam), Ativan (lorazepam), as well as the sedatives Ambien (zolpidem), Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Donormyl.

Professor Heather Ashton, a drug specialist at the University of Newcastle said: "If Heath Ledger took these drugs in this combination, he could have suffered respiratory depression enough to kill him.

"Heath Ledger was almost certainly addicted to benzodiazepines.

"These drugs can be useful in the short term but if they are taken for more than four weeks you can get hooked. They are addictive and dangerous and grossly excessive doses are sometimes prescribed. Users become more tolerant and need more and more of the drug to produce the same effect.

"Long-term use can lead to depression and suicide."

And Barry Haslam, a campaigner against the use of benzos, claims that they so affected his memory that he "lost" 10 years of his life and cannot remember his children growing up.

The Sunday Express can reveal that two medical directors at Wyeth, inventors of Ativan, had grave concerns about the drug's long-term use.

Dr Thomas Harry, who masterminded clinical trials at the research centre in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, says he was never asked to find out if it was safe to prescribe Ativan for several months or more.

When asked why this was so, he said he believed: "There was nothing to be gained but everything to lose in the sense we could be courting disaster.

"The view of most people in the industry at the time was that there was a high probability that a patient would have difficulties in withdrawing from any drug that acts on the central nervous system."

Jim Dobbin, Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton, is heading an all-party parliamentary group to look into the dangers of benzos. Next week, he will ask in Parliament why doctors and patients are unaware of the deadly risks.

He said: "We're getting proper labelling on our food but not these drugs."

Source: Sunday Express

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