By Nina Lakhani
Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Professor John Strang, head of the National Addiction Centre at King’s College London, and author of a government report on the prescription of potent psychiatric sedatives, did not declare he received the money from the pharmaceutical firm, fuelling allegations of a serious conflict of interest.
Health ministers face growing pressure to scrap their forthcoming tranquiliser addiction strategy. The National Addiction Centre (NAC) report into the scale of the problem and how to help people has been widely criticised as “a total waste of time and money”.
Jim Dobbin, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquiliser Addiction, has written to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, saying it was a “mistake” to commission Professor Strang, who he said was compromised by his financial ties with the drug company. Tranquilisers, which have been commonly prescribed for anxiety, insomnia and stress since the 1960s, can cause dependence after a few weeks in some people, even when following their doctor’s prescription.
A second report, by the government’s National Treatment Agency, has enraged tranquiliser addicts who say their plight was ignored in favour of illegal recreational drug users. A cross-party investigation into legal drugs in 2009 estimated 1.5 million “involuntary addicts” dependent on drugs like diazepam, zopiclone and lorazepam.
MPs were told the vast majority of these “victims” are turned away from addiction services, which focus mainly on heroin and crack cocaine users, and many GPs remain unsure about how to help people come off the drugs safely. Pharmacists in England dispensed more than 17 million prescriptions for tranquilisers last year, but it is not known how many were prescribed the drugs or, crucially, for how long.
Heather Ashton, emeritus professor of clinical psychopharmacology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, said government researchers could have answered these questions by conducting fairly rudimentary analysis of GP databases. The NTA insists that it “reviewed all the available evidence”.
But also emerging are discrepancies between what the ministers insist the reports are about, and what the authors say they did.
Professor Strang “regretted” the report had been compromised because the conflict of interest information was not made public earlier. He told The Independent: “If there has been a misunderstanding about the nature of our work then that is certainly regrettable… In case there is any doubt, let me be clear: we were not asked, and have never intended, to give specific advice about best clinical practice and we never intended to make policy recommendations.”
Case study: ‘The NHS is no help to addicts’
Josh Jarrett, 50, from north London, was first prescribed a tranquilliser, Librium, when he was eight years old because he was “a handful”. As he became tolerant, his GP increased the dose, making it harder and harder to go to school, play and make friends. When he was 11, his medication was changed to lorazepam, another potent benzodiazepine. He spent his childhood, and formative adult years, barely functioning, unable to work, but for more than 20 years had no idea the prescriptions were to blame.
Earlier this year, a new GP told him to “reduce or find another practice”. Mr Jarrett said: “To say that there is help available for people like me on the NHS is a complete fantasy. Most GPs have no idea how to help people like me come off these drugs safely, which can take years. Forcing people to come off the drugs too quickly can lead people to suicide.”