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Dr Vernon Coleman

The Nightmare Pills – How Millions are Caught in the Tranquilliser Trap: The latest confidential statistics from the Department of Health and Social Security show that in the last 12 months for which figures are available about 30 million prescriptions were written for tranquillisers such as Valium, Librium and Ativan.

It is easy enough to explain why doctors started prescribing tranquillisers 20 or 30 years ago. At the time they seemed a perfect answer. Barbiturates were going out of fashion. And doctors were beginning to recognise that stress related diseases are common. Tranquillisers such as Valium seemed to offer a safe solution. But it is more difficult to explain just why doctors continue to prescribe these drugs today.

For the surprising fact is that for some time now the drug companies have been warning doctors that they are NOT suitable for long-term use. My own estimate – which has not been disputed by anyone from the medical profession, the DHSS or the Home Office, is that there are about 2,500,000 tranquillisers users in Britain.

And many say they are just as difficult to come off as heroin. Joseph Tutt is not the only patient who is so angry that he is suing his doctor.

Two other readers of mine have already consulted solicitors and begun legal action. And dozens more have written to tell me that they are planning legal action.

If Tutt is successful many patients who have been given tranquillisers or sleeping tablets and whose lives have been devastated or damaged in some way could have begun proceedings within months. And it will be their doctors they will sue, not the drug companies. Some ten or fifteen years ago the drug companies were promoting products of this type with unqualified enthusiasm.

And doctors could hardly be blamed for believing that these drugs were both effective and safe. But for years now there has been no such excuse.

Drug companies making these products constantly warn doctors not to allow patients to take them for more than a week or two. They advise doctors not to make these drugs available on 'repeat prescription'. Evidence showing that these drugs are addictive and potentially dangerous has been accumulating rapidly since the early 1970s. Numerous research papers have been published showing that products in this group can cause problems such as memory loss as well as anxiety, depression and sleeplessness.

Ironically, these are the three symptoms for which they are most commonly prescribed. The Committee on Safety of Medicines has received reports showing that these drugs are well known to cause well over 100 different side effects. Earlier this month the DHSS and the Home Office publicly admitted that the size of Britain's tranquilliser addiction problem is worrying them by bringing these drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – the same legislation that controls drugs such as heroin. And yet thousands of doctors don't seem to take any notice. It may be true that many still don't know what else to do for patients who are suffering from anxiety or stress-related diseases. The only conclusion I can draw is that several thousand British doctors do not read articles in the medical journals nor do they study literature which is published by the drug companies.

These painfully ignorant doctors have between them created the biggest drug addiction problem this country has ever known. It's their addiction to prescribing these terrible drugs that has given us a nation of junkies. If Mr Tutt – and others like him – win, the medical profession could be facing several million very expensive lawsuits and its biggest crisis in modern history. The flood gates will have opened. Dr Coleman is the author of over 30 books including Addicts and Addictions. The paperback edition of his latest book. Life Without Tranquillisers, was published two months ago. Since then he has received more than 6,000 letters from users who, he says, are angry enough to sue the doctors that put them on the road to addiction. – Today, May 7, 1986

Benzodiazepine Tranquillisers
Quotations from The Drugs Myth, 1992
Dr Vernon Coleman, MB, ChB, DSc (Hon)

  • In the 1960s and 1970s when the dangers associated with the barbiturates had become widely known, a newly discovered group of drugs – the benzodiazepines – were introduced as safe, effective and non addictive alternatives for patients who needed help to relax or to get to sleep. Within a very short space of time thousands of doctors were prescribing vast quantities of the benzodiazepines for millions of patients and by the late 1980s virtually every developed country in the world had a major benzodiazepine addiction problem. For the third time in less than a century doctors and the drug industry had successfully created and promoted drug addiction.

  • Drugs such as heroin and cocaine are usually put into the first group whereas drugs such as the benzodiazepines inevitably find themselves in the second group. This sort of classification has no basis in science, for the benzodiazepine tranquillisers are much more dangerous and much more addictive than the so called 'hard' drugs.

    And, of course, whether an individual becomes an addict through his own poor choices, through ill luck or through the errors of a physician, he will still be regarded as an addict. The stigma is the same. Millions of individuals who have become hooked through absolutely no fault of their own are treated badly by doctors, by society and by employers. During the last two decades I have received tens of thousands of letters from people whose lives have been ruined (in every possible sense of the word) because of benzodiazepine addiction. Most report that the agony of their addiction has been compounded by the feelings of shame and guilt they have been encouraged to bear, and by the sense of outrage they feel at the way they have been treated.

  • One of the classic ways of acquiring a drug market is to give away free supplies of a drug to non-users who try the free sample, like it and then have to pay for their supplies. This technique is regularly used by professional drug pushers. Incidentally, shortly after the benzodiazepines were first introduced into Britain supplies were donated free to hospitals in order to calm government anxieties about the cost. This mass marketing programme must surely have helped lead to the massive addiction problem which now exists.

  • The benzodiazepines are probably the most addictive drugs ever created and the vast army of enthusiastic doctors who prescribed these drugs by the tonne have created the world's largest drug addiction problem. I am well aware of the size of this problem because I have been campaigning to persuade politicians and doctors to control the benzodiazepines more effectively for most of my professional life; during that time I have heard from and spoken to tens of thousands of addicts whose lives have been ruined by these drugs.

  • When patients are taken off benzodiazepines successfully, many of them say that they feel better than they have felt for years, without any further treatment. The danger of the benzodiazepines is insidious. These drugs have withdrawal effects very similar to those of barbiturates and alcohol but these withdrawal effects may take much longer to come on.

  • It was known long before this that the benzodiazepines caused problems. The first scientific paper showing that they could be addictive was published in 1961 – just a year after chlordiazepoxide (the first of the benzodiazepines) had been launched in America. The first clinical report I have been able to find that detailed the addictive qualities of the benzodiazepines was published in a journal called Psychopharmacologia. It was written by three doctors from the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, California. The paper was entitled Withdrawal Reactions from Chlordiazepoxide and it described in dramatic detail how patients who had been taking the drug suffered from withdrawal symptoms when the drug was stopped.

    The authors of the paper published in Psychopharmacologia described how eleven patients who had been taking fairly high doses of chlordiazepoxide for up to six months were suddenly taken off their pills and given sugar tablets instead. Ten of the eleven patients experienced new symptoms after withdrawal. Six patients became depressed, five were agitated and unable to sleep. Two of the patients had major convulsions or fits. Most of the symptoms developed within two to nine days after the drug was stopped. By the early 1970s a number of other papers had been published showing that the benzodiazepines could cause addiction. In 1975 the International Journal of the Addictions carried a major article entitled Misuse and Abuse of Diazepam: An Increasingly Common Medical Problem.

    Over the following years I wrote dozens of newspaper and magazine articles on the subject of benzodiazepine addiction and I helped to make scores of television and radio programmes. As a result I received tens of thousands of letters from tranquilliser users (at one time 1 was getting well over a thousand letters a week from people who were hooked on tranquillisers and who wanted help). By the early 1980s I estimated that there were between two-and-a-half and three million benzodiazepine addicts in Britain – and millions more around the world. In addition to the letters from patients I also received a vast number of letters from doctors, for although tens of thousands of doctors were still handing out benzodiazepines freely a growing number were becoming aware of the problem. Many consultants and general practitioners wrote to tell me that they thought that the benzodiazepines were the most addictive drugs in common use and countless drug experts told me that in their experience patients found it far harder to get off the benzodiazepines than off any illegal drugs.

  • Eventually, in January 1988 the Committee on Safety of Medicines finally issued a warning headed 'Benzodiazepine dependence and withdrawal symptoms'. The warning advised doctors that the benzodiazepines should not be used for more than four weeks, and warned that long-term chronic use was not recommended.

    By then it was too late for millions of patients. The government, the drug industry and the medical profession should have acted fifteen years earlier – when the evidence they needed was first made available. The medical profession had created the biggest drug addiction problem to originate in the twentieth century. Sadly, even today, three years after that official announcement, I am still getting letters every day from British patients who are being given benzodiazepine tranquillisers and translations of my articles and books about benzodiazepines have shown that the benzodiazepine problem is only just emerging in many other countries.

  • Most alarming of all, perhaps, is the fact that the medical profession, the politicians and the drug companies seem to have learned little or nothing from the tragic benzodiazepine story.

  • I firmly believe that any drug prescribed for anxiety will eventually prove to be addictive, but it seems to me that neither doctors nor drug companies are prepared to abandon the search for a profitable pharmacological solution to anxiety. The result is, I fear, that in the future the problems associated with the benzodiazepines will be repeated time and time again. The benzodiazepines have caused infinitely more sorrow and despair than all illegal drugs put together and yet governments and legislators have been so busy concentrating on the control of illegal drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis that they have consistently failed to act and protect patients until enormous amounts of unnecessary damage have been done. Effective controls on the barbiturates came a decade too late and the significant warning about the benzodiazepines also came well over a decade too late. Politicians and legislators have presumably assumed that because a drug is available on prescription it must be safe. If they had put one per cent of the effort that has gone into an attempt to halt illegal drug smuggling into controlling the promotion and prescribing of the benzodiazepines the public would have benefited beyond all measure.

from The Drugs Myth (1992) by Dr Vernon Coleman

The Drugs Myth (Full Text) · Extracts from: "Life Without Tranquillisers", 1985 · Dr Coleman's Web Site

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