Tranquillisers – The Benzodiazepine Story

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA

1973 seems a long time ago.

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.

I am proud of the fact that in 1988 the British Parliamentary Secretary for Health told the House of Commons that the Government had acted in response to the articles I had written. With surprising naivety I thought we’d won. Sadly, 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. Here is what I wrote in my book Why and How Doctors 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 whingeing idiots 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.

But the medical establishment doesn’t like to do or say anything to help because the medical establishment was bought, long ago, by the big drug companies.

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 June 1st 2020

Vernon Coleman has written a number of books on drugs and drug addiction. His book The Benzos Story is available as a paperback on Amazon. His book Why and How Doctors Kill More People than Cancer is available as a paperback and an eBook on Amazon.