Prescriptions for benzos are highest in the most deprived areas in England 

Prescriptions for sleeping pills such as Valium and Xanax are more commonly dished out in the poorest parts of England, research has found.

Warwick University scientists analysed how many benzodiazepines and Z-drugs were given out by GP practices across the country in 2017.

They found that, an average of 288 prescriptions for the drugs were issued for every 1,000 patients in the most deprived areas, such as Grimsby.

In comparison, the average rate was around 198 for every 1,000 patients in surgeries from more affluent areas, including Berkshire. 

The addictive drugs – also used to treat anxiety – should only be taken for a maximum of four weeks to stop patients from getting hooked, according to guidelines.

Warwick University scientists found as many as 288 prescriptions for the drugs were issued for every 1,000 patients in the most deprived areas, such as Grimsby. In contrast, the rate was around 198 for every 1,000 patients in more affluent places, including Berkshire

But charities estimate up to 40 per cent of people who take benzos, such as Valium and Xanax, for six weeks will develop a dependency.

They are fast-acting. But the danger lies in their unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, keeping some patients hooked for years.

Withdrawal symptoms include shaking, nausea, sleep issues, hand tremors, sweating, confusion and worsened anxiety.

The study, published in the journal Family Practice, also found higher prescribing rates along the coastal regions of England.

Dr Saran Shantikumar and team believe this may, in part, be down to seaside areas being home to older people, generally.

It is unclear why poorer regions of England dish out more of the drugs.

However, the researchers believe it could be because patients are more likely to be on longer-term prescriptions or taking higher doses in such areas. 

The Warwick study compared prescribing rates (left) among clinical commissioning groups

Dr Saran Shantikumar and colleagues then analysed the socioeconomic status of all of the areas

The Warwick study compared prescribing rates (left) among clinical commissioning groups (CCGs). Dr Saran Shantikumar and colleagues then analysed the socioeconomic status of all of the areas (right)

Charities estimate up to 40 per cent of people who take benzos, such as Valium and Xanax, for six weeks will develop a dependency

Charities estimate up to 40 per cent of people who take benzos, such as Valium and Xanax, for six weeks will develop a dependency

IS THE UK IN A BENZO CRISIS? 

Benzodiazepines, including Valium, Ativan and Xanax, are prescribed twelve million times a year, according to the UK Addiction Centre. 

It said the numbers of people addicted to benzodiazepines in the UK are vague, but it could be as high as 1.5 million, making them second only to alcohol on the scale of addictive substances.

A study published in The British Journal of General Practice published in July 2017 suggested that more than a quarter of a million people in the UK are likely to be taking dependency-forming benzodiazepine and Z-drugs (BZD) far beyond the recommended usage of 2–4 weeks after looking at data taken from a survey of GP surgeries in Bradford, UK.

Most people get their drugs from their GP, but others may get them over the internet, from street dealers or through friends and family.

In children, cases of addiction to benzodiazepines have increased by 96 per cent, from 161 in 2016 to 2017, to 315 in 2017 to 2018, Public Health England revealed in 2018.

Experts have previously warned benzos such as Xanax and other anxiety drugs are becoming popular among teenagers for recreational use in the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, campaigners have long fought for the problem of prescription pill dependency to be recognised. 

Benzodiazepines work by slowing down the functioning of the brain by enhancing the actions of a particular chemical in the brain called GABA, or gamma-amino-butyric acid.  

Underlying medical conditions that may be associated with benzodiazepine prescription could also be more common in more deprived areas, they said. 

The Warwick study compared prescribing rates among clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), which look after GP practices.

Dr Shantikumar and colleagues then analysed the socioeconomic status of all of the areas, which often look after entire counties.

Each CCG and GP practice was given a deprivation score, based on income, employment, health, disability, education, crime and barriers to housing.

Results showed the rate of prescribing benzos and Z-drugs was around 45 per cent higher in the most deprived ​GP practices and CCGs. 

It is estimated that around 300,000 people in the UK are on long-term prescriptions for benzodiazepines or Z-drugs.

A Public Health England report published earlier this year said that 1.4million people in England received a benzodiazepine prescription in 2018.

Most patients prescribed the drugs as sleeping tablets are older – but patients with anxiety and alcohol dependency can be much younger.

Benzos have, over the years, been linked to causing a higher risk of falls, traffic accidents from impaired cognition and even dementia.

Dr Shantikumar said: ‘It is hard to quantify how much of a problem benzodiazepine addiction is because it’s not well publicised.

‘The recent PHE report has confirmed that lots of people are taking benzodiazepines, a small number of whom have been prescribed them for some time.

‘From my experience and others in clinical practice we know that there are people who have been taking these drugs for a long time who are struggling to get off them.’

He added doctors should look at alternative options to patients who have been on benzos for long periods of time.

Dr Shantikumar added: ‘I would encourage anyone affected by, or concerned about, medication dependence to see their GP who can help discuss the problem and consider alternative treatments. 

‘The Frank website is also a fantastic source of information and local services, and have a 24-hour hotline you can call for confidential advice.’

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