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by Simon Antrobus
Sept 10, 2013
Over-the-counter and prescription drugs now kill more people in Britain than heroin and cocaine. That is a startling and very worrying statistic.
We are being given a wake-up call here and, as a country, we need to take a long hard look at what’s happening.
Last year 807 people died in the UK as a result of taking anti-depressants and painkillers compared with 718 deaths linked to cocaine and heroin abuse.
We have to urgently look at what other options there are to help people with the challenges they face in their lives.
It is a growing problem and at Addaction we are increasingly seeing people who’ve been misusing prescription drugs for the treatment of pain or depression.
Some are even addicted to over-the-counter painkillers that don’t require a prescription.
Often we imagine we would notice if someone was an addict – they couldn’t function normally, they couldn’t cope. But often it isn’t immediately apparent.
In many cases people start taking these medications simply to treat a specific ailment, and they do so in small quantities.
But over time their dependency and needs grow and it become about treating a wider problem.
One of the most worrying abuses is that of codeine which, although much weaker, comes from the same family of substances as heroin and morphine.
It can now be found in a very large number of products, far more than 10 years ago.
There are about 15 different products using this drug and some 27 million pills are sold every year containing codeine.
Current guidelines warn users that it can become addictive after just three days.
Although you don’t need a prescription to buy them, in 2009 measures were introduced to regulate their use.
Individuals must present themselves to a pharmacist who will consider whether they need the drugs.
But it is relatively easy for someone who is hooked on the pills to visit several pharmacies in a big town or city.
Individuals may start taking painkillers if they’ve broken their leg or injured their back, and then find they are addicted.
With any addiction there can be withdrawal symptoms ranging from mood swings to sickness and even physical pain.
To counteract those, the addict feels the need to seek out more of the substance, often in increasingly large doses, to get the same effect.
During the past decade the number of prescriptions issued rose 68 per cent, reaching a peak of 927 million a year by 2010.
Nearly 1.5 million people in the UK are now estimated to be addicted to drugs such as benzodiazepine – known as Valium.
It can take much longer to wean someone off over-the-counter medicines like these than heroin and cocaine.
The effects and withdrawal symptoms can be just as strong too.
Of course, part of the reason more people are being prescribed anti-depressants is that more may be overcoming the stigma of having mental health issues and are visiting their GPs for help.
But there are other ways to treat anxiety and depression – such as professional counselling – that don’t require these drugs, many of which people don’t always realise are addictive.
We have made great strides in reducing the tragic deaths relating to illegal drugs and we have to be able to do the same thing with over-the-counter and prescription medication, too.
We also need to get past the idea that just because a drug is legal, or given to you by a pharmacist or doctor, it is safer than a street drug.
Any drug will have an effect, whether it is crack cocaine or tobacco. Those effects will differ but each has its risks.
We need to look at the reasons someone has become addicted, not just at the drug they have chosen.
But remember that there is always help and support available for people who need it, or are worried about a loved one.