We can’t say how many people are ‘hooked on’ prescription drugs

Published: 12th Sep 2019

In brief

Claim

One in four people is hooked on prescription drugs.

Conclusion

Incorrect. Research by Public Health England into the prescribing of five specific types of drug found there wasn’t enough evidence to say how many people were addicted. One in four adults in England received a prescription for at least one of the drug types they looked at in 2017/18.

 

11.5 million Brits, or one in four, were prescribed addictive drugs last year.

 

Correct for adults in England in 2017/18. This is the number of people who had received at least one prescription for one of five specific types of potentially addictive drug.

Claim 1 of 2

“One in four people is hooked on prescription drugs”

Daily Mail social media headline, 10 September 2019

Headlines have warned that over 11 million people in Britain or “one in four people” are prescribed potentially addictive medication. This was broadly the finding of a Public Health England (PHE) review into five specific types of medication—although the figures were for adults in England rather than all people across the UK or Great Britain.

That’s not to say that all of these people have an addiction or dependency on these drugs, in fact PHE specifically said it wasn’t possible to say how many people had a dependency based on the data. This was generally correctly reported by the media, but the social media headline used by the Daily Mail ­­saying that “one in four people is hooked on prescription drugs” (which wasn’t repeated in its article), is incorrect.

11.5 million people received at least one prescription for a drug that could cause dependency

Public Health England (PHE) published the findings of a review into five different classes of prescribed medication. These were benzodiazepines (mainly prescribed for anxiety and insomnia), Z-drugs (prescribed for insomnia), gabapentinoids (for neuropathic pain), opioid pain medications and antidepressants.

Using data from prescriptions, it found that around a quarter of adults in England (or 11.5 million people) had received a prescription for at least one of these medicines in 2017/18 and then had that prescription dispensed.

On the whole, PHE found that “Prescriptions for antidepressants and gabapentinoids are increasing, but prescriptions for opioid pain medicines are decreasing, after rising for many years. Prescriptions for benzodiazepines continue to fall, and those for z-drugs have more recently started to fall.”

It also says that “It is difficult to determine the prevalence of dependence on, or withdrawal from, the medicines covered in the review from any available data sets, but the data on the duration of prescribing suggests that dependence and withdrawal are likely to be significant issues”.

So although these drugs have the potential to cause dependency, this is not always the case.

Correction 12 September 2019

We corrected the first line of this article to clarify that headlines warned around 11 million people are prescribed addictive medication.

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