According to a recent report compiling data from UK Addiction Treatment Centres (UKAT), prescription drug use will very soon overtake heroin addiction in the UK. The numbers for those addicted to both over-the-counter drugs and their prescription counterparts are up 22 percent with 65 percent of patients at UKAT reporting problems with common painkillers like codeine.
At the time, Eytan Alexander, UKAT’s founder, urged the government to get involved, stating:
“GPs need to make people aware of the addictive nature of these drugs and fully explain the risks of becoming addicted to them. Opiates prescribed for pain can be very addictive. Codeine, diazepam, benzos, tramadol are all causing problems. People even come to us for for help getting off zopiclone used for insomnia.”
There is also NHS data to suggest that one in every 11 patients living in England has been prescribed medication that could be addictive, including painkillers, sedatives, and antidepressants.
Government Intervention in UK Prescription Drug Use
With these eye-opening statistics shared, Public Health Minister Steve Brine ordered an investigation into the growing problem of addictions to prescription painkillers and other medication used to treat insomnia and anxiety.
Brine stated that dependency on prescription medications has become a “huge problem” in countries like America, and “we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here.”
In the United States, there are more than 64,000 people who die each year from drug overdoses, and prescription medications are often to blame.
Public Health England (PHE) announced a “broad, public-health focused review of commonly prescribed medicines for adults who have pain [excluding pain from cancer], anxiety, insomnia or depression.”
This comprehensive review is expected to take up to a year to complete (release date in early 2019) and will closely examine the common use of opioid pain medications, benzodiazepines and z-drugs, antidepressants, pregabalin and gabapentin, and other addictive substances.
Brine said, “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.”
Ultimately, the UK wants to prevent the problem instead of focusing on treatment after it becomes an issue. The government’s review will focus primarily on understanding the size of the issue and how doctors and drug companies can help decrease the problem.
Prescription Drug Use on the Rise
A chief concern is discovering why the prescribing of addictive medicines has increased three percent of the past five years. The NHS research also indicated that 8.9 percent of patients were prescribed medicines last year, and as many as 7.8 percent of UK residents are using prescription painkillers that have not been prescribed to them.
NHS research also indicated that antidepressants have doubled in use, in England, over the last decade. Although antidepressants usually aren’t habit forming, some patients tend to experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking them. An increase of prescribed antidepressants also indicates more cases of depression, which has been linked to higher risk of substance abuse.
The goal of the study isn’t necessarily to reduce the use of prescription drugs in the UK, since, when properly prescribed, they can be life-altering for patients.
“Many addictive medications, when prescribed and monitored correctly, and in line with clinical guidelines, can be very effective in treating a wide range of health conditions. But all drugs will have risks and potential side-effects,” Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of The Royal College, told The Guardian.
“It is important not to automatically jump to the conclusion that more drugs being prescribed is always a bad thing. Advances in medical research mean that more medications are constantly becoming more available for patients, and they can increasingly be used to improve their health, and the nature of our NHS is that these medications are available to anyone who could benefit from them,” she continued.
Offering Aid to Those Addicted
Rosanna O’Connor, the director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at PHE also shared PHE’s concern for those already addicted to drugs and seeking treatment.
“It is of real concern that so many people find themselves dependent on or suffering withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medicines,” O’Connor said. “Many will have sought help for a health problem only to find later on they have a further obstacle to overcome.”
Although the chief goal here is to understand the problem and take proactive action, the government already offers comprehensive treatment and medical support for those struggling with drug addiction and dependence.
Part of the efforts come from the British Medical Association, a group representing a large portion of doctors in the UK. They’re pushing to establish better helplines to prevent overdoses and get people the help they need before they become another statistic.
“A national helpline, similar to the Frank service [for users of illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine], could be set up relatively quickly. This would give individuals suffering with dependence to drugs like benzodiazepines vital, timely support,” Dr. Andrew Green, lead physician and pharmacist of the BMA’s GPs committee, also told The Guardian.
Overall, these helplines would add to the incredible addiction treatment options already available for those in the UK. The research discovered through the review could be life-altering, not only for those in the UK, but also those in the United States.
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