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Review into prescription drug addiction in England

The growing problem of prescription drug addiction is to be reviewed by health officials, the Government has announced.

Public health minister Steve Brine has commissioned Public Health England (PHE) to examine why one patient in every 11 was prescribed a potentially addictive drug last year.

Mr Brine said the issue was a “huge problem” in countries such as the United States, adding: “we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here”.

An investigation will examine rising rates of prescriptions for potentially addictive drugs (Julien Behal/PA)

The review will consider why:

– Prescribing of “addictive medicines” has increased 3% over five years.

– 8.9% of patients were prescribed one of these medicines last year.

– Antidepressant prescriptions in England have more than doubled in the past 10 years.

– And the number of adults taking prescription-only painkillers not prescribed to them, with a recent poll suggesting the figure may be as high as 7.6%.

The Department of Health and Social Care said PHE will review the evidence and also make recommendations on how to address the issue.

It said many people benefit from medicines that treat problems like pain, anxiety and insomnia, but some of these medicines are highly addictive and result in dependence and withdrawal.

The review will cover benzodiazepines and z-drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, opioid pain medicines and antidepressants.

While antidepressants are not generally recognised as dependence-forming, some patients experience difficulties when they try to stop taking them.

Mr Brine said: “We know this is a huge problem in other countries like the United States and we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here.

“While we are world-leading in offering free treatment for addiction, we cannot be complacent. That’s why I’ve asked PHE to conduct this review.

“PHE has an excellent track record in robust evidence reviews, and this will help us understand the scale of this issue here and how we can address it.”

Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at PHE, added: “It is of real concern that so many people find themselves dependent on or suffering withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medicines.

“Many will have sought help for a health problem only to find later on they have a further obstacle to overcome.

“PHE very much welcomes this opportunity as it is vital that we have the best understanding possible of how widespread these problems are, the harms they cause, as well as the most effective ways to prevent them happening and how best to help those in need.”

The All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence welcomed the move, saying the issue is a growing problem.

The news comes as experts at the University of Warwick launched a trial to help end long-term dependency on painkillers.

Researchers from Warwick Medical School and The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough have developed a support programme that they hope will help people with long term pain reduce their dependency to opioids.

Participants in the trial will either receive usual GP care plus a self-help booklet and relaxation CD, or this treatment alongside the new support programme.

One of the study lead authors, Dr Harbinder Sandhu, associate professor at Warwick Medical School, said: “Evidence suggests that opioids are only effective in the short term and patients take them long term then need to manage a range of side effects and can suffer devastating withdrawal symptoms.

“However in the UK reports indicate that between 2000-2010 prescriptions of opioids for non-cancer pain increased by 466% and in 2015 there were 16 million opioid prescriptions costing over £200 million.

“We hope that the results of our study will be used to help patients with long-term pain in the future.”

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