Public health minister Steve Brine has ordered Public Health England (PHE) to review evidence on dependence and addiction on prescription drugs after NHS data showed that one in 11 patients was prescribed a potentially addictive medicine last year.
The review will investigate why prescribing of potentially addictive medication is on the rise - up 3% in the past five years, why antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in the past decade and the reasons for 7.6% of adults taking prescription-only painkillers that had not been prescribed to them.
Mr Brine said: 'We know this is a huge problem in other countries like the United States—and we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here.
'While we are world-leading in offering free treatment for addiction, we cannot be complacent — that’s why I’ve asked PHE to conduct this review.
'PHE has an excellent track record in robust evidence reviews, and this will help us understand the scale of this issue here and how we can address it.'
PHE says the review will consider 'benzodiazepines and z-drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, opioid pain medicines and antidepressants'.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'Addiction to any substance can have a devastating impact on a patient’s health and wellbeing – and that of their family and friends. We welcome this independent review as a means of better understanding the complex reasons behind addiction to prescription medication, and to shape our approach to tackling it.
She said GPs would always prescribe in patients' best interests, after a 'frank conversation about the potential risks and benefits'. The RCGP chair added: 'It is important not to automatically jump to the conclusion that more drugs being prescribed is always a bad thing. Advances in medical research mean that more medications are constantly becoming more available for patients, and they can increasingly be used to improve their health – and the nature of our NHS is that these medications are available to anyone who could benefit from them.
'However, we know most patients would rather not be on long-term medication and where appropriate we will explore non-pharmacological treatments, but these – and this is particularly so for psychological therapies - are often scarce at community-level.
'We hope that conclusions from this review will include highlighting the need for greater provision of and access to alternative treatments in the community – and for those patients who do become addicted to prescription medications to have easy, consistent, but also confidential access to appropriate, high-quality support.'