Prescription drugs could be posing as big a problem in the UK as heroin addiction, experts have claimed.

Harry Shapiro, director of the charity DrugWise, told the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence: “We are in the midst of a great public health disaster, which is killing hundreds of people a year and ruining the lives of millions.”

The meeting also heard that addiction services tend to focus on illegal drugs and alcohol so those who are dependent on prescription medication are left without support.

The number of prescriptions for high strength opioid painkillers being given out by doctors has risen rapidly in the last few years. One study claims that that the number of these type of prescriptions increased seven-fold in the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010 for patients without cancer.

People start out taking the drugs exactly as they have been instructed by a doctor and then find they are becoming dependent on them. Long-term use can also lead to unintentional overdoses and the possibility of infections as well as the medication itself becoming less effective.

Withdrawal can be unpleasant

Those who are addicted to prescription painkillers can suffer from painful flu-like symptoms when they stop taking them, making quitting difficult. There are also concerns that people are become dependent on benzodiazepines, which are designed to treat anxiety, with people suffering from insomnia and panic attacks when they try to give them up.

The British Medical Association has now urged the Government to set up a specialist NHS helpline and website dedicated to helping people who are addicted to prescription drugs. One of the reasons given for setting up separate support dedicated to prescription drugs is that users do not want to be considered the same as those abusing illegal substances.

Addiction specialist Farrukh Alam, from Central and Northwest London Mental Health Trust, told a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Prescribed Drug Dependence: “When patients suffering opioid dependence are referred to me, they don’t like mixing with other drug users and tend to drop out of treatment.”

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