Crossbench peer the Earl of Sandwich asks the government to consider developing programmes to assist people who are addicted to legally prescribed medication.
I intend to ask Her Majesty’s government whether they plan to develop separate treatment programmes for people suffering from acute symptoms of addiction to, and withdrawal from, legally prescribed drugs, as distinct from programmes for illegal drug addiction. I will also ask what discussions have been held with GPs and psychiatrists to address urgently the dangers of over-prescription and the need to monitor and control supplies of these drugs, separately from illicit drugs.
In the last three years I have become aware of the very serious condition of people who become addicted to and have to withdraw from drugs that have been over-prescribed. I also know of the expert work being done in the voluntary sector in cities like Bristol, Oldham, Cardiff and two London boroughs. I am hoping that the new Clinical Commissioning Groups will recognise these agencies alongside local health services.
The trouble is that so far the government has ignored this category of patient, confusing them with illegal drug addicts. In fact, the DoH has yet to report on the extent of this problem since the National Treatment Agency study only covered examples of substance misuse, and failed to report on the availability of services for those suffering from involuntary addiction.
Following the recent visit by the Health Minister, Anne Milton, to a specialised agency in Oldham, the Department of Health ought to encourage closer contact between the NHS and these specialised agencies and support the development of common programmes where appropriate. Although the range of the voluntary sector may be limited, such is the quality and good practice that, in effect, these non-governmental agencies are doing the government’s work for them.
But there is a more fundamental problem. Benzodiazepines such as tranquillisers are being regularly prescribed against the British National Formulary guidelines which normally recommend a 2-4 week time limit. They are also being prescribed for conditions for which they are not indicated. If there is evidence of over-prescription by GPs against the BNF guidelines, surely there should be additional training for medical students and junior doctors in the proper use of prescription drugs.
Then there is a need for greater awareness. Given that withdrawal from legally prescribed drugs can be as dangerous as from illegal drugs, and in many cases even more so, perhaps warnings should be printed in much bolder lettering on packaging, as on cigarette packets, and on notices in doctor’s surgeries.
Finally, it must be about time that manufacturers were better regulated. Following the recent $3 billion action against the British pharmaceutical giant GSK for fraudulent promotion of prescribed drugs in the US, the government should consider the company’s position in relation to United Kingdom law.