For nearly fifty years it has been recognised that the group of drugs known as the benzodiazepines – commonly prescribed as tranquillisers or sleeping tablets – are more addictive than heroin. I know this because I was the first person to draw attention to this alarming fact – after I had spent several years studying drug addiction in general and prescription drug addiction in particular.
I first started writing about benzodiazepines in 1973 – and warning that they were dangerously addictive drugs. Valium and Ativan were two of the best known brand names at the time. Today there are many varieties available. Sometimes they are referred to by their generic names – such as diazepam, chlordiazepoxide, oxazepam, lorazepam and so on – and sometimes they are known by their brand names – such as Valium, Librium, Xanax, and so on. Benzodiazepines are sometimes known – though usually NOT with affection – as benzos.
In 1973, I was editing the British Clinical Journal, and we published a leading symposium dealing with the addictive problems of benzodiazepine tranquillisers.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, I wrote hundreds of articles about benzodiazepine tranquillisers and sleeping tablets. I made countless television programmes. I wrote three books about addiction. I made a series of radio programmes which were broadcast nationally on the BBC local radio network. I set up a help group for tranquilliser addicts. I produced a newsletter containing information and advice about benzodiazepines.
Throughout those two decades I was violently opposed by members of the BMA and the RCGP who insisted (contrary to all the evidence in my view) that drugs such as Ativan and Valium were perfectly safe and not in the slightest bit addictive.
And all the time I was receiving letters from patients telling me that these drugs had ruined their lives. The phrase I heard time and time again in the 1970s and 1980s was; ‘I have been to hell and back’. For years my mail from readers was delivered in grey Royal Mail sacks. Patients were numb when they were on the drugs. And they were in torment when they tried to stop them.
The size of the problem has been consistently underestimated. I wrote a book about benzodiazepines which smashed into the Bookseller and Sunday Times bestseller lists in 1985 and many were astonished because, for the first time, it became clear that the issue was one which concerned many people.
But then, in 1988, there was a breakthrough.
The medical establishment still insisted that benzodiazepines were perfectly safe but the Government took action and told GPs that benzodiazepines should not be prescribed for patients for longer than two to four weeks because of the risk of addiction.
I am proud of the fact that in 1988 the British Parliamentary Secretary for Health told the House of Commons that the Government had acted in response to the articles I had written.
With surprising naivety I thought we’d won.
Sadly, doctors took no notice. GPs were as addicted to prescribing the drugs as patients were addicted to taking them. One generation of doctors retired only for another to appear and to adopt the same egregious prescribing habits. Benzodiazepines have been prescribed for every ailment known to man or woman.