Benzos, the BMA and Betrayal
Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA
1973 seems a long time ago.
It was the year when VAT was first introduced in Britain.
Pink Floyd released ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’.
Edward Heath was Prime Minister.
£20 million in compensation was paid to thalidomide victims.
The IRA conducted a bombing campaign in London.
Pay rises were limited to 7% and inflation was 8.4%.
Coal shortages led to the introduction of the three day working week.
And it was the year that I first started writing about benzodiazepines – and warning that they were dangerously addictive drugs.
In 1973, I edited the British Clinical Journal and published a leading symposium dealing with the addictive problems of benzodiazepine tranquillisers.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, I wrote hundreds of articles about benzodiazepine tranquillisers and sleeping tablets. I made countless television programmes. I wrote three books about addiction. I made a series of radio programmes which were broadcast nationally on the BBC local radio network. I set up a help group for tranquilliser addicts. I produced a newsletter containing information and advice about benzodiazepines.
Throughout those two decades I was violently opposed by members of the BMA and the RCGP who insisted (contrary to all the evidence) that drugs such as Ativan and Valium were perfectly safe and not in the slightest bit addictive.
And all the time I was receiving letters from patients telling me that these drugs had ruined their lives. The phrase I heard time and time again was; ‘I have been to hell and back’. For years my mail from readers was delivered in grey Royal Mail sacks. Patients were numb when they were on the drugs. And they were in torment when they tried to stop them.
The size of the problem has been consistently underestimated. When my book Life Without Tranquillisers smashed into the Bookseller and Sunday Times bestseller lists in 1985 many were astonished because, for the first time, it became clear that the issue was one which concerned many people.
But then, in 1988, there was a breakthrough.
The medical establishment still insisted that benzodiazepines were perfectly safe but the Government took action and told GPs that benzodiazepines should not be prescribed for patients for longer than two to four weeks because of the risk of addiction.
‘Dr Vernon Coleman’s articles, to which I refer with approval, raised concern about these important matters,’ said Edwina Currie, British Parliamentary Secretary for Health in the House of Commons in 1988.
With surprising naivety I thought we’d won.
I helped start a class action lawsuit but this was abandoned when legal aid was withdrawn, and patients bringing the case were warned by one manufacturer that they might lose their homes if they lost.
Sadly, despite all this, doctors took no notice. GPs were as addicted to prescribing the drugs as patients were addicted to taking them. One generation of doctors retired only for another to appear and to adopt the same egregious prescribing habits. Benzodiazepines have been prescribed for every ailment known to man or woman.
And in 2011, it was revealed that in Britain a staggering 11.5 million prescriptions a year were still being written for benzodiazepine tranquillisers. And over a third of those prescriptions were for more than eight weeks supply.
Here is what I wrote in my book Doctors and Nurses Kill More People than Cancer:
`Any doctor who signs a prescription for a benzodiazepine (such as Valium) for more than two weeks is not fit to practise medicine and would, if the General Medical Council did what it is supposed to do, be struck off the medical register. It annoys me intensely that patients who have become addicted to these wretched drugs should be ignored by the NHS whereas those who take drugs such as heroin and cocaine for entertainment are, when they moan about their inevitable condition and demand treatment, instantly provided with vast amounts of support. For the record, benzodiazepines are considerably more addictive than any of the so-called recreational drugs.’
And still nothing has changed.
Doctors (mainly GPs) are still handing out prescriptions for these deadly drugs as if they were sweets.
This is the medical horror story of this century and last century. It is the most disgraceful medical scandal of modern times. It is the biggest addiction problem Britain has ever known. It is no exaggeration to say that these drugs have caused endless misery and undying pain; they have ruined millions of lives.
That is not rhetoric or exaggeration. It’s fact. Benzodiazepines have ruined millions of lives. And those who created the pain still refuse to accept responsibility.
And no one in the Government, the NHS, the BMA or the RCGP seems to give a damn.
Oh, there is some modest concern.
Committees have been set up. Enquiries have been initiated. People from the Department of Health, the BMA and the RCGP have sat around tables and talked about the problem for years.
But they have, grossly misunderstood the nature of the problem, and they have underestimated the size of it.
Worse still, they seem to regard benzodiazepine addiction as being in the same category as heroin addiction or cocaine addiction. Those who are hooked on tranquillisers are blamed for their addiction as if they were in some way responsible for their circumstances.
Let us be crystal clear about this: anyone who has, since 1988, been prescribed benzodiazepine drugs for more than two to four weeks has been betrayed by their doctor.
Any doctor who has prescribed these drugs for longer than a month, or has made them available on repeat prescription, should be struck off the medical register and banned from practising medicine.
It is, perhaps, possible to claim that doctors who mis-prescribed the drugs prior to 1988 were simply ignorant buffoons. Many could claim, with some justification, that their patients asked for the drugs. The BMA and the RCGP were roundly condemning me for drawing attention to the addictive nature of the drugs and so it was relatively easy for doctors to say ‘Oh, that fellow Coleman is talking nonsense – the BMA says benzodiazepines are perfectly safe’.
But things changed in 1988.
Since the Government warned doctors not to prescribe these drugs for more than two to four weeks, the rules have been different.
Doctors are now completely responsible for the biggest addiction problem this country has ever seen. This is a far bigger problem than barbiturate addiction or other prescription drug addictions.
One Minister after another has promised help. Every promise has turned to dust.
The time for committees and discussion groups is long past. It is obscene that the BMA should now offer a view on what needs to be done. It is moderately pleasing only that the BMA and the RCGP now seem to understand that there is a problem.
But there is no need for more talk or more research.
The patients who are still addicted to benzodiazepines need help now.
And doctors who are still prescribing these damned drugs without any understanding of the consequences need to be punished.
The BMA and the RCGP cannot be allowed to get away with blaming patients for taking these drugs for long periods of time.
Doctors, and only doctors, are to blame for this appalling state of affairs.
My dear colleague Barry, who is the ex-chairman of Oldham Tranx, asked George Roycroft, who is Head of Science and Public Health Policy at the BMA if the BMA might consider setting up some sort of helpline service for benzodiazepine addicts.
Roycroft replied that the BMA did not have the expertise or the resources!
At my request Barry then asked George Roycroft how much money the BMA receives from drug companies in advertising.
Well, I can probably make a good guess.
The BMA publishes many journals, including the British Medical Journal and the current advertising rate for the BMJ is around £10,000 a page.
I reckon that the BMA (which is actually the official trades union for doctors) receives around £30,000,000 a year from drug companies (including the companies which make benzodiazepines). That is a conservative, low estimate.
BMA members have, through ignorance and incompetence, created this addiction problem.
And it is, therefore, the BMA and its members which have the responsibility to help clear up the mess they have made.
If the BMA does not have the expertise then who has?
The BMA certainly has the resources.
I estimate that since 1988 the BMA has received nearly £1 billion from drug companies – much of it from the makers of benzodiazepine drugs. Many BMA committee members have strong, personal links with drug companies. There are very few doctors in the medical establishment who do not receive drug company funding in one way or another.
(Drug companies buy up doctors with great enthusiasm. When in 1975 I wrote a book called The Medicine Men, my first attack on the drug industry, a major drug company offered to pay for me to go on a nationwide tour to talk to doctors! I obviously refused. I am probably one of very few doctors in Britain to have consistently turned down drug company money.)
Those campaigning for and behalf of benzodiazepine addicts should, in my professional view, stop cooperating with the BMA and the RCGP. Nothing good will ever come of it. It is a mistake to think of the BMA as a friend. The BMA is, and always has been, the patients’ enemy.
But there is one thing the BMA understands: money.
Energy should be spent on taking legal advice about suing the BMA and its members. I would suggest demanding that the organisation, on behalf of its members, be required to pay £50,000 in compensation to every benzodiazepine addict. That should make a sizeable hole in the BMA’s finances. And it might make them think a little about their responsibilities.
There are plenty of legal firms around who eagerly take on class action lawsuits.
The time for discussion and committees is long gone.
The time has come for an all-out war on the BMA, the RCGP and their members.
Doctors still prescribing these drugs for more than two to four weeks should be reported to the GMC.
Doctors, and their representative organisations, have consistently betrayed patients.
It is about time that those responsible for this on-going addiction scandal be required to take responsibility and face the awful consequences of their careless actions.
Copyright Vernon Coleman July 21 2017
Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA is a Sunday Times bestselling author whose books have been translated into 26 languages and sold around the world. He is a former GP who has been a professional author for nearly 40 years. His books on benzodiazepines and on addiction include, Life Without Tranquillisers (1985), Addicts and Addictions (1986), and The Drugs Myth 1992). His general non-fiction medical books include, Bodypower and How To Stop Your Doctor Killing You. In 1973, he was editor of the British Clinical Journal, which published the first comprehensive discussion of benzodiazepine addiction.
There are hundreds of free articles on www.vernoncoleman.com and www.vernoncoleman.co.uk
For a biography please see www.vernoncoleman.org or www.vernoncoleman.net
And there are over 60 books by Vernon Coleman available as ebooks on Amazon.
I’m afraid, however, that you have to pay for those. (But not a lot.)