Addiction to prescription medicines

HD Photo arms crossedby Howard Duff, RPS Director for England

The recent Home Affairs Committee report which looked in part at addiction to prescription medicines created a lot of heat but not much light about the complex issues of dependency, addiction and misuse of medicines.

Despite the figure of 1.5 million addicts to prescription medicines being widely quoted, it is currently very difficult to know the true number of people affected. What’s needed is accurate data to identify the true number of people experiencing addiction problems with prescription medicines and I welcome the work being undertaken by the BMA and Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on this issue.


What’s really important is that we don’t stigmatise people who need and derive benefit from long-term medicines, especially those with long-term pain or mental health issues. These patients must remain confident their medication is beneficial and the prescribing professional has their best interests at heart.

There’s much misinformation around about so-called ‘addiction’ to antidepressants and a fine line between dependency and addiction across a wide range of medicines. Some of the reporting of this issue seemed to assume that problems with abuse of prescription medicines occurring in the USA would automatically replicate themselves over here, despite the fact that the two health systems, and the ways people access medicines, are entirely different. It makes no more sense to draw conclusions about healthcare from the USA than it does to look at gun control there and decide that those problems and that culture will be imported here.

What’s needed?

Don’t get me wrong. Addiction is a serious problem. The Society is supportive of the need to control tramadol under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The evidence from the Office for National Statistics and local prescribing data confirms that the prescribing of this drug is now in need of closer monitoring, as it is subject to abuse and dependence with prescribing rates both in primary and secondary care steadily increasing from 2007.

It’s also important the Government recognises that obtaining prescription medicines through illegal websites, often purporting to be pharmacies, is a significant and growing problem that needs to be tackled through international enforcement and greater public awareness. Far too many people are still able to get hold of prescription-only medicines without a prescription.

Pharmacists and other healthcare professionals are very aware of the potential addiction problems of certain medicines. We need more services to help people who have problems with addiction, including to prescription medicines. Being vigilant to those who need help, creating better data on addiction, tackling illegal websites and empowering those who need long-term medication will help improve patient safety for all.