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Prescription drug dependency timebomb – government probe ordered

New figures indicate a 'real concern' regarding the problem

The UK government has ordered an investigation into the “real concern” of dependence on prescription drugs like painkillers and antidepressants.

Public health minister Steve Brine has asked Public Health England to undertake an independent inquiry into the scale of the problem, after new NHS data suggested one in every 11 patients in England is being prescribed medication that could result in dependency.

The drugs under investigation include sedatives, painkillers and antidepressants.

Brine has said wants to avoid a situation like the one in the US, where there’s been a massive increase in dependence on opioids, with an estimated 64,000 people a year dying from drug overdoses, partly as a result of a significant upsurge in those developing a dependency on painkillers.

He 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.”

The review, which will take around a year, will cover sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines and z-drugs (zolpidem and zopiclone), painkillers such opioids, pregabalin and gabapentin (the latter two are also used to treat epilepsy) and antidepressants.

It is of real concern that so many people find themselves dependent on or suffering withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medicines

While antidepressants are not deemed to be addictive, some patients have been known to experience difficulties when they try to stop taking them.

Prescribing of “addictive medicines” – sedatives and painkillers – has increased three per cent over five years, GP data for England suggests.

Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at PHE, said: “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.”

Brine has asked PHE to make specific recommendations outlining what it thinks the government and NHS should do to limit problems of dependence.

PHE are due to report their findings in early 2019.

Experts say many prescriptions will be appropriate and people should not come off their medication without speaking to their doctor.

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