By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) – More and more Britons are being prescribed potentially addictive medicines including sleeping pills, opioids and other painkillers, raising the risk of a drug crisis like the one in the United States, health officials said on Tuesday.
In a government-commissioned report, researchers at Public Health England (PHE) said evidence showed that “since at least 10 years ago more people are being prescribed more of these medicines and often for longer”.
In 2017 to 2018 alone, 11.5 million adults in England – more than a quarter of the adult population – was prescribed one or more of the medicines under review, the PHE analysis found.
The medicines included anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines and sleeping pills known as z-drugs, as well as the epilepsy and anxiety medicines gabapentin and pregabalin, antidepressants and opioid pain medicines.
Many of these can be addictive and could cause problems for people taking them or coming off them, PHE said. The report also found higher rates of prescribing to women and older people.
While the prescription of some drugs, including benzodiazepines and opioids, has dipped a little recently amid fears about the deadly opioid epidemic in the United States, others, such as the gabapentin, pregabalin and some antidepressants, are being prescribed more often and for longer.
“This means more people are at risk of becoming addicted to them or having problems when they stop using them,” PHE said.
“It also costs the National Health Service a lot of money, some of which is wasted because the medicines do not work for everyone all the time, especially if they are used for too long.”
Responding to the PHE’s findings, the British Medical Association (BMA) doctors union said its members were worried:
“We have seen the devastation that addiction to prescription drugs has had in the United States, and while the problem here is on a lesser scale, doctors … are concerned at the number of patients being prescribed these medicines, and the length of time they are taking them for,” it said in a statement.
An opioid epidemic in the United States has killed almost half a million Americans since 1999, and a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) policy forum earlier this year warned that the United States “is by no means alone in facing this crisis.”
The Paris-based OECD said deaths linked to opioid use were rising sharply in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and England and Wales.
Campaigners at the UK Addiction Treatment Group (UKAT) said the PHE report showed “a nation crying out for help” and being put on potentially dangerous repeat courses of painkillers and antidepressants as a stop-gap measure.
UKAT said the consequences of such prescribing were already in evidence with rising numbers of people seeking treatment for prescription drug addiction.
Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was watching the U.S. crisis closely and aiming to take avoiding action in the UK.
“We take the experience in the U.S. of dependence and addiction to opioids very seriously and are following … developments … to learn from the actions other countries are taking to tackle this issue,” it said in a statement.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Andrew Heavens)