Deaths linked to prescription anxiolytics such as Valium are at their highest level in a decade, in part due to the growing popularity of illegal stimulants such as cocaine.
Analysis of government data reveals that benzodiazepines – sedatives used to treat anxiety and insomnia – were mentioned on the death certificates of 476 people in England and Wales last year, an increase by 55% in 10 years.
Experts from social welfare organization Turning Point believe that drug traffickers are increasingly offering “street valium” to counter the effects of stimulants such as mephedrone (Mcat) and cocaine.
Cocaine’s popularity continues to grow in the UK, with the latest data indicating unprecedented availability and higher street purity than ever before.
Analysis of NHS and government statistics by Turning Point found that deaths linked to diazepam – first marketed as Valium – have increased the most of all benzodiazepine-type drugs over the past decade, from 186 to 304, an increase of 63%.
Known as ‘benzos’, the psychoactive substances help calm brain activity and are used to treat seizures, as well as other ailments, but are highly addictive, although full figures are not available for estimate the number of dependent people.
Turning Point, which supports people with substance abuse problems, said urgent action was needed to prevent further tragedies and improve support for people addicted to drugs.
David Bremner, the charity’s medical director, said: “The rise in deaths across the country is a worrying trend – each one is a tragedy.”
Experts believe that funding cuts to addiction support services and increased pressure on primary care are among other explanations for the increase in deaths.
“Cuts to addiction support services and increased pressures on GPs are among the factors likely to drive this increase,” Bremner said.
He added: “Sustained investment in treatment services is essential if the government is to address this public health crisis.”
Data shows that every region of England – apart from the South West and East – has seen an increase in deaths among people prescribed or using benzodiazepines.
The highest overall figure was 78 deaths in 2020 for the North East and North West, compared to 53 and 49 respectively in 2010.
This despite the fact that benzodiazepine prescriptions in England globally fell from 11.3 million in 2010 to 8.6 million in 2020 following warnings about the high risk of addiction.
The Home Office has been contacted for comment.