The Dirty True Story about Benzodiazepines and the British Medical Association

Dr Vernon Coleman MB ChB DSc FRSA

Benzodiazepine tranquillisers are back in the news. A small number of doctors have drawn attention to the addictive nature of these drugs. And it is rumoured that even the British Medical Association (the doctors’ trade union) has declared that there could, just might perhaps be a problem though actually they’ve known about it for quite a while and not to worry because they’ve been keeping an eye on things and you can trust them to look after everyone.

Journalists and commentators talk about the benzodiazepine problem as though it is something new; something they themselves have just discovered.

I am amazed that medical journalists are not capable of doing some basic research. The benzodiazepine problem has been discussed endlessly for decades. It was itself merely a repeat of the problems created by the bromides and the barbiturates. It seems to me that if journalists cannot find something on the internet within seconds then it does not exist. Much of the work done on benzodiazepines was published decades before the internet began – and so the work is only available in books and libraries.

The BMA apparently say that they ‘didn’t realise the scale of the problem or the depth of feeling it causes in those affected’.

Oh dear.

Maybe someone at the BMA needs to learn how to look things up in libraries. Maybe the BMA needs a spokesman who is out of his teens.

I first started drawing attention to the horrors of benzodiazepines (drugs such as Valium, Ativan and Mogadon) back in 1973, and the first scientific papers drawing attention to the problems associated with these drugs were published in the 1960s. I drew attention to the problem in my first book The Medicine Men in 1975 and was vilified by the medical profession for doing so.

Thousands of patients wrote in to me to say that their lives had been ruined by benzodiazepines. I had endless TV programmes and a hugely popular radio series devoted to benzodiazepine addiction. My mail from patients came in large grey Royal Mail sacks.

(The Medicine Men, incidentally, was the first book drawing attention to the close links between the medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industry. It was attacked mercilessly by the medical profession but has since then spawned a host of similar books by other authors and I’m pleased to say that these days authors who mention this profitable relationship tend to be acclaimed rather than vilified.)

At that time (and I remember this very well), the British Medical Association seemed able to find an endless parade of doctors prepared to go on radio or television and tell the world that I was a dangerous, scaremongering lunatic. The BMA and the medical establishment stood shoulder to shoulder with the pharmaceutical industry in defence of these awful medicines. After all, the BMA’s in-house comic (the British Medical Journal) was earning zillions in advertising revenue from the drug companies.

As a team they were very powerful. I lost work and reputation because of my campaign. My telephone was tapped and my home entered and evidence taken.

Despite the public disquiet, the standard line was that benzodiazepines were wonderful drugs.

I remember a number of celebrities attacking me for daring to criticise their beloved benzodiazepines.

A television nurse called Claire Rayner attacked me live on television and complained that she found the drugs very useful.

It did not seem to bother her that the drugs had been proven to be extremely addictive. Nor did she seem concerned by the number of side effects.

Eventually, in 1988, the Government took action and changed the classification of benzodiazepines in an attempt to persuade doctors to treat them with more respect. (The Government admitted that they had done this as a direct result of my campaigning.)

Sadly, doctors did not take much notice.

They continued to hand out the most addictive drugs in the world as though they were as harmless as sweets. And millions of patients got hooked.

But now, 43 years after my first articles warning about these drugs, the medical establishment apparently recognises that there is a problem.

Why could that be?

Two reasons.

First, the patents on the original drugs have long since expired. There is no longer big money to be made from benzodiazepines.

Second, the drug companies have produced a whole host of alternatives which are more powerful and more profitable.

Patients who come off their benzodiazepines can be given one of the new, more expensive products as an alternative.

The bottom line is that attacking benzodiazepines is now actually quite good for business.

And so the BMA, which never gives a damn about patients (and was, don’t forget, behind the recent doctor strikes), but which invariably stands shoulder to shoulder with the drug industry, now suddenly feels comfortable about admitting that there could, might perhaps be a bit of a problem with benzodiazepines.

Note: anyone who wants to know more about the history of benzodiazepines should read my book Life Without Tranquillisers which was published in 1985 and which contains details of some of the research work proving that these drugs are dangerous. The book is now out of print but libraries should hold copies. My book The Medicine Men, and the sequel Paper Doctors, should also be available in libraries – though, sadly, both are out of print.

Copyright Vernon Coleman

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