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Monday, 24 October 2016

Benzodiazepine Drugs and Prescription Drug Addiction

BBC's '5 Live Investigates' programme yesterday (23rd October 2016) looked at 'Prescription Drug Addiction', and focused on the addiction caused by Benzodiazepine drugs. Readers of this blog will know that I am critical of the BBC's reluctance to investigate conventional, drug  based medicine. So in one sense this was an unusual topic for them to highlight. The impression I got was that Adrian Goldberg, the presenter, thought that he was breaking new ground in investigating these drugs. The fact is, however, that he wasn't, it is a well-known story of a tragedy that goes back many decades.

Of course, Goldberg was breaking new ground for the BBC, which, alongside the rest of the mainstream media, has hitherto ignored the issue when it comes to investigating the harm caused to patients by pharmaceutical drugs, and the conventional medical system!

Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs that work on the central nervous system. They have strong sedative, hypnotic, anticonvulsant and anxiolytic properties. They are used for a wide variety of medical conditions, including anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, seizures, alcohol dependence and withdrawal. They are also used as muscle relaxants.

Benzodiazepines are a large drug class, with a long history of development. Some of these drugs are well-known brands, such as Librium, Valium (diazepam) and Ativan (lorazepam). Other names are Alprazolam, Chlordiazepoxide, Clonazepam, Clorazepage, Clobazame, Dalmane, Estazolam, Flurazepam,Halcion, Librax, Klonopin, Midazolam, Niravam, Onfi, Oxazepam, ProSom, Restoril, Serax, Temazepam, Tranxene, Triazolam, Versed, and Xanax.

As the programme says, correctly, Benzodiazepine drugs were introduced in the 1960's to replace Barbiturate drugs, which at the time were killing thousands of patients. As usual, they were described as 'Wonder Drugs' by the BBC and other mainstream news outlets! Indeed, the media proved to be excellent sales organisations for the pharmaceutical companies! Millions of prescriptions for the new 'happy pills' ensured that they became one of the most highly profitable drugs of all time. In 1978 it is estimated that 32 millions prescriptions were written for Benzodiazepines in the UK alone!

Yet, as with all pharmaceutical drugs, benzodiazepines were soon known to be dangerous. They become controlled substances as they had the potential for abuse and addiction. And an increasing number of patients began to report dreadful, long term side effects. Subsequently Benzodiazepine drugs have been described as "a 50-year plus horror story" for tens of thousands of people in the UK. And as far as the BBC and the mainstream media is concerned, it has been a scandal that has never been properly addressed.

The scandal first broke in the 1980's, after it was accepted that thousands of patients had become horribly addicted to drugs like Librium and Valium. The victims complained of serious side effects, such as blackouts, epileptic seizures, memory loss, brain damage, insomnia and personality change. What is worse, many people who suffered these Benzodiazepine side effects continued to do so, many years and often decades later!

So the BBC is to be congratulated that it has, at last, caught up!

The initial reaction of the pharmaceutical industry, and the conventional medical establishment, including the drug regulators, was typical. Denial. They did not to accept that benzodiazepine drugs created addiction or 'dependence'. It was only when Mind, the UK mental health charity, teamed up with the TV programme 'That's Life' to survey the experience of thousands of benzodiazepine users that the conventional medical establishment were finally forced to face up to the problems these drugs caused. Presumably the BBC must have forgotten they produced this programme!

Even so, during the 1980's Benzodiazepine prescriptions continued to reach between 25 and 29 million per year, and despite frequent attempts to reduce prescriptions from that time, they still stood at over 11 million in 2005.

Colin Downes-Grainger wrote a book called 'Prescription for Injury' in 2007). It is available for download here. For anyone who wants to read more about the Benzodiazepine scandel this is an excellent source of information. It was originally self published (Colin told me that no mainstream publisher would publish it). As someone who suffered from the drug, he said this.

               "..... there are still over a million prescriber addicts in the UK and thousands who are taking (or who once took) the drugs long-term, and as a result are living with ruined health which cannot be rebuilt. Many are living in poverty as a result of the effects of benzodiazepines. Whole lives have been lost and cannot be relived.  Families have disintegrated, never to reunite."

  • It was in 1988 that the Committee on the Safety of Medicines advised that Benzodiazepine drugs should not to be prescribed for more than four weeks. 
  • The in January 2004 the UK's Chief Medical Officer sent a letter to all doctors, reminding them that Benzodiazepines should only be prescribed for 2 to 4 weeks. This letter was sent because doctors had ignored the 1988 advice. The letter itself stated that many doctors were still prescribing Benzodiazepines on a long-term basis. So, a full 16 years after the initial advice ,there were still 12.7 million Benzodiazepine prescriptions, and 30% of these were for long term use.
  • Yesterday, the BBC programme claimed that there were still over 10 million prescriptions for Benzodiazepine drugs in 2015, and that 250,000 of these were for patients who had been on them for more than a few weeks! The situation had changed little in the 12 years since the 'That's Life' programme is 2004, and an incredible 28 years after the initial advice about 'short term only prescription, nothing much has changed!

Colin Downes-Grainger's book, written in 2007, further summarised the situation faced by Benzodiazepine sufferers, including himself, when he said:
              "The real severity of benzodiazepine damage has never been recognised officially. In the face of it the Department of Health maintains a belief that benzodiazepine addiction is not all that serious and withdrawal is relatively easy. In modern gov-speak the department does not recognise the experience related by affected patients or campaigners. The Department too believes that repeated utterance of statements such as 'we take the problem seriously' or 'our priority is to prevent addiction occurring in the first place' makes it true for actual and former patients and provides adequate support for those badly in need of it".

So the situation has changed little. The dangers of Benzodiazepine drugs has been raised this time by the British Medical Association (BMA). It has asked for a permanent, dedicated, 24-hour phone-line to provide help and support for sufferers of Benzodiazepines, and other addictive pharmaceutical drugs. And again, the response of the NHS has again been dismissive as it was in 2004. Such a phone-line already exists, they have said! So there is still denial, still a refusal to acknowledge that these pharmaceutical drugs are a serious problem to our health, that they have ruined the lives of millions of people, and that they are still being prescribed!

So does the BBC's investigation yesterday represent a significant advance in dealing with the problem of Benzodiazepine drugs? Hardly! It failed to ask critical questions.

  • If doctors were given specific prescription guidance for Benzodiazepines in 1988, and then again in 2004, why have these guidelines been ignored by doctors? The question was never asked by the BBC!
  • The BMA, the organisation calling for additional resources to help drug victims, is the organisation that represents the very doctors who are continuing to prescribe the drugs! Why was the BMA not taking action itself to ensure that their members were acting appropriately? The question was never asked by the BBC!
  • The BBC programme appeared to be tacitly supporting the BMA's request for additional resources - to set up a 24-hour support service, and to provide adequate support services at a local level. One person said "someone will have to put their hands in their pockets and pay for it"! Yet the crux of this problem is that BMA doctors continue to prescribe a drug that continues to be licensed and approved by the drug regulator. Would it not be a more appropriate for the BMA to stop the prescription of Benzodiazipines, to seek to ban the drug altogether, and to resolve the direct cause of the problem? The question was never asked by the BBC!
  • Similarly, how often are adverse drug (and vaccine) reactions the cause of additional demands on health spending? How often is sickness and disease caused by pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines placing additional burdens on the NHS? Benzodiazepine drugs were introduced to replace Barbiturates which killed people. The introduction of SSRI antidepressant drugs was purportedly to replace Benzodiazepine drugs, yet SSRI drugs are now also associated with severe side effects, and their prescription should have been withdrawn entirely from children and adolescents. So we have three generations of drugs, all causing illness and disease, all placing additional pressures on the health care system! The BBC always refuses to look at this issue!
  • Why is it possible for any pharmaceutical drug or vaccine to pass through the (allegedly) long process of 'scientific' drug testing, then through the process of drug regulation, and then through decades of clinical use, without action being taken? And during the decades of clinical use, how effective has the 'yellow card' reporting system been, the system designed to ensure that these adverse reactions are reported to the drug regulator, who should then take action. The question was never asked by the BBC!
  • Arising from this, what is the position of the British drug regulator, the MHRA, specifically on Benzodiazepine drugs? How many yellow card have been submitted over the decades? If they do not know about the issues, why have the yellow cards not been submitted? If yellow cards have been submitted, and they know about the issues raised in the programme, what action have they taken to deal with the situation? And what action are they planning to take to investigate the situation? The question was never asked by the BBC!
  • The BBC informed itself by obtaining 'expert' advice from conventional doctors, that is, by asking members of the same profession that has been prescribing Benzodiazepine drugs on a long-term basis for decades! This is what the BBC always does in relation to health issues! It raises a difficult issue, and then allows the perpetrators, presented as 'experts', to defend themselves, and throw balm on the issue! The safety of conventional, drug based medicine, and the reliability of the 'expertise' of conventional medics, are never questioned by the BBC.
  • Although the BBC seemed concerned, at a surface level, about the plight of people whose lives had been devastated by these drugs, it did not look into what redress these people had. The programme did discover one woman who had spent a large sum of her own money to obtain compensation, but it failed to address the issue of what people, without such resources, could do. It also failed to address the fact that the government has provided drug companies with immunity against prosecution for many of its drugs and vaccines.
  • Nor did the BBC give any indication that there would be a follow up programme. Once again it is likely that the issue of Benzodiazepine drugs will be quietly dropped. Good programme, perhaps, raising an important issue. It filled the available airtime. But the issue will not be pursued! So it is likely that in another 12 years the BBC will discover again that Benzodiazepine drugs are being prescribed by the million, that people are still suffering from their dreadful side effects, and that support services remain inadequate!

The public is not well served by the BBC, which describes itself as a 'public broadcaster', but seems quite unable, or unwilling, or both, to adequately inform the public about health matters. Both it's health and science reporters appear to be proponents of conventional, drug based medicine, committed to pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines, hailing them as 'wonder drugs' when introduced, and ignoring the harm they cause until it can no longer be ignored.

Yesterday's programme may go some way to inform people that Benzodiazepine drugs are dangerous. But it completely failed to investigate how, and why a medical system that dominates the NHS has completely failed to protect patients against harmful and dangerous drugs and vaccines.