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The number of children being treated for addiction to tranquilisers has doubled in a year, to more than 300, according to data from Public Health England (PHE). Xanax, and copies of it, accounted for the sharpest rise: from eight children receiving treatment in 2016-2017 to 53 in 2017-2018.

Xanax is the brand name for a benzodiazepine called alprazolam, which is prescribed for anxiety and panic attacks. However, many of the pills taken by children are copies bought online, which may have been adulterated and may be a higher strength.

“Benzodiazepines work by literally slowing down the functions of the brain, acting as a leveller in times of high stress, over-excitement or anxiety”, said UK Addiction Treatment (UKAT) group psychiatrist Mateen Durrani. “Serious side-effects can occur, including slurring words or even total blackouts. We’re seeing more and more people admitting themselves after becoming addicted to benzos.”

Ambulance services around the UK have also reported a growing problem. The North East Ambulance Service told the BBC that in 2017 it had attended 240 callouts for Xanax abuse by children, two of which had been for 11-year-olds.

Drugs misuse

In 2017-2018, more than 15,500 children had help for substance misuse, 88% for cannabis.

“In most cases, their misuse stemmed from using the drug recreationally at parties and mixing it with alcohol, which proves a toxic combination”, said Dr Durrani.

The PHE report also says that the number of children receiving treatment for ecstasy addiction rose by 18% over the same period. In addition, 46% of the 15,583 children being treated for substance misuse are also being helped with alcohol issues.

“Despite fewer under-18s asking for help with drug and alcohol problems, it remains a significant issue and the latest data shows an increasing number of young people needing treatment for benzodiazepines”, said Rosanna O’Connor, Director, Alcohol, Drugs & Tobacco within the Health and Wellbeing Directorate of PHE.

“However, there is limited evidence and data for these drugs, so we do not have a clear picture of changes in use. Benzodiazepines are risky when taken without medical supervision and mixing them with alcohol or other drugs increases the risk of harm, particularly when mixed with other sedatives.”

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