Health chiefs have been ordered to carry out an investigation into the widespread prescription of powerful tranquillisers across Ireland.
Latest figures show almost one in six people on both sides of the border have taken either sedatives, tranquillisers or anti-depressants.
Usage is much more pronounced in Northern Ireland where more than a fifth of the population said they have taken the drugs at some stage. More than one in ten used them last year.
But it is a growing issue in the Republic of Ireland, with around 5% of people south of the border last year taking anti-depressants and almost 7% taking sedatives or tranquillisers.
Despite guidelines being issued to medics in 2002, usage continues to rise.
Junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall has told the Health Service Executive to report back to her on the prescribing patterns of benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax, in particular.
The medication, for stress and anxiety, can lead to addiction if used over long periods of time and their role in drug overdoses has also come under the spotlight.
Also known as benzos or BZDs, the drugs are the second most common contributor in drugs poisonings after alcohol.
“I feel that we in Ireland have a problem in relation to prescription drugs that is underestimated,” said Ms Shortall.
Dr Des Corrigan, chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Drugs (NACD) said most overdoses could be prevented if people didn’t use benzos mixed with other drugs, particularly with narcotics and alcohol.
Asked what was causing the rise in their use in the Republic, he said: “It may very well be levels of stress in the community.”
Over-usage in the North was traditionally suggested to be a legacy of the Troubles but increasing prescriptions in the Republic could point to a fall-out from the deepening economic crisis.
Dr Corrigan said the NACD had called on Ms Shortall and her predecessors to demand a review of the overprescription of benzos by doctors.
Most recent figures suggest about one in ten are from the black market, with the vast majority being issued through the medical profession.
The NCAD is also examining the use of prescribed and over-the-counter painkillers in Ireland, such as the codeine-based brands Solpadeine and Nurofen Plus.
“We are particularly looking at, over a period of time, whether there would be a move – as there is in the United States – towards a developing problem with prescribed painkillers,” said Dr Corrigan.
Ms Shortall said the figures “jumped off the page” showing a massive rise in the use of such medications – up from 2.2% to 27.9% of people surveyed last year.
“While the increase documented arises from the inclusion of a much broader range of products under the heading, many of which are familiar products to us all, the figures are undeniably high,” she said.
The survey, Drugs Use in Ireland and Northern Ireland, was carried out through face-to-face interviews of 7,669 people aged between 15 and 64 in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.
It was commissioned by the NACD and the North’s Public Health Information and Research Branch.