MORE than €60 million was spent on sleeping tablets, anxiety drugs and tranquillising psychiatric medication in 2008, representing a sharp rise.
HSE figures obtained by the Irish Examiner reveal the number of prescriptions written for the pills topped 4.2 million, making the combined category the highest frequently prescribed medicines, followed by aspirin on 2.5m prescriptions.
The drugs were prescribed under the Government-funded General Medical Scheme (GMS), Drug Payment Scheme and Long-Term Illness schemes.
Evaluations carried out in 2000 suggest that between 60% and 70% of the total benzodiazepine usage in the community took place in the GMS scheme.
By far the highest concentration of costs and prescribing frequency fall under the GMS scheme, with a spend of €51m.
The prescribing of Xanax, used to treat anxiety and panic disorder, has dramatically increased in recent years, with 283,000 prescriptions written in 2005 compared with 382,921 in 2008.
Other frequently prescribed drugs in 2008 were Valium at a prescribing frequency of 479,305, and Temazepam at 213,630 prescriptions.
Popular sleeping tablets Zopiclone and Zolpidem were prescribed at a frequency of 454,663 and 341,863 respectively in 2008, an increase of more than 100,000 for both since 2005.
In 2002, a report carried out by the Benzodiazepine Committee warned that use of BZDs and sleeping tablets was increasing steadily. With long-term use of BZDs, tolerance, dependence and withdrawal effects can become major disadvantages.
The report noted a prescribing frequency of 1.6m was worrying for BZDs, and for certain sleeping tablets it is at least 2.5m, an analysis of HSE prescribing records has shown.
The study further said in view of the worrying evidence on BZD use, it was considered of paramount importance to develop guidelines for good clinical practice.
However, a point strongly made by several witnesses and by members of the committee was that psychiatric drugs tend to be prescribed because of a lack of an alternative.
“It is in the absence of a full range of counselling and psychotherapy services that many medicines, intended for moderate to severe psychiatric disorders, are prescribed for minor symptoms leading in some cases to severe adverse reactions,” health practitioners warned.
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