Touted as the world's first wonder drug, benzodiazepines—"benzos" for short—were widely prescribed in the 1960s for anxiety and stress. Within a decade they had become the most commonly used treatment for such conditions in the States and Britain. Use of benzos such as Valium, Mogadon, and Librium in both countries was widespread. Today, the same class of drugs—including Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan—is still frequently prescribed for anxiety and panic.
Widely known to be addictive and to cause a range of serious side effects, benzos became less popular in the 1980s and 1990s owing largely to the rise of SSRI antidepressants, which were widely considered to be safer and nonaddictive. A combined search for benzos and "adverse effects" on PubMed yields a staggering 15,157 hits, ranging from sleep disorders and increased violence among patients to discontinuation problems and dependency issues that bear all the hallmarks of a serious addiction.
With such widespread, well-publicized medical knowledge about this class of drugs, you might think doctors and psychiatrists would now shun them as excessively risky. But the drugs are still commonly prescribed for generalized anxiety and panic attacks. Healthy Place, which calls itself "America's Mental Health Channel," is far from alone in stating: "You can take benzodiazepines as a single dose therapy or several times a day for months (or even years). Studies suggest that they are effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety in approximately 70-80% of patients. They are quick acting. Tolerance does not develop in the anti-panic or other therapeutic effects. Generics are available for many, which helps reduce cost. Overdose is not dangerous."
A new report on the drugs by Britain's Independent is likely to dispel such thinking. According to the national newspaper, "the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Britain agreed in 1982 that there should be large-scale studies to examine the long-term impact of benzodiazepines after research by a leading psychiatrist showed brain shrinkage in some patients similar to the effects of long-term alcohol abuse."
The Medical Research Council, founded in 1913, is the agency in Britain responsible for co-ordinating and funding the nation's medical research.
The only problem with the MRC's response to such warnings about benzos? It appears to have sat for thirty years on the very documents that warned about the risks of brain shrinkage in patients taking them. Moreover, the MRC appears to have marked the documents "closed until 2014," despite their obvious importance to public health, given the millions of Britons and North Americans who've been prescribed such drugs.
According to Nina Lakhani at The Independent, who has seen the documents, "no such [investigative] work was ever carried out [by the MRC] into the effects of drugs such as Valium, Mogadon and Librium—and doctors went on prescribing them to patients for anxiety, stress, insomnia and muscle spasms."
"Members of Parliament and lawyers," she continues, "described the [recently revealed] documents as a scandal, and predicted they could lead the way to a class action costing millions. There are an estimated 1.5 million ‘involuntary addicts' in the UK, and scores display symptoms consistent with brain damage."
The chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, Jim Dobbin, is quoted as telling the same newspaper last week: "Many victims have lasting physical, cognitive and psychological problems even after they have withdrawn. We are seeking legal advice because we believe these documents are the bombshell they have been waiting for. The MRC must justify why there was no proper follow-up to Professor Lader's research, no safety committee, no study, nothing to further explore the results. We are talking about a huge scandal here."
Catherine Hopkins, the legal director of Action against Medical Accidents, is quoted as adding: "The failure to carry out research into the effect of benzodiazepines has exposed huge numbers of people to the risk of brain damage. This research urgently needs to be carried out, and if the results confirm the suspicions of the 1981 expert group, it could lead to one of the biggest group actions for damages against the Government and the MRC ever seen in the courts."
One possible reason why the MRC sat on this story for thirty years? The regulatory agency in Britain that oversees the safety of medicines, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, is funded entirely by the drug companies it is meant to oversee. A 2005 parliamentary report in Britain spells that out with remarkable precision in paragraph 98 of its Fourth Report to the House of Commons:
"The MHRA is unusual in being one of few European agencies where the operation of the medicines regulatory system is funded entirely by fees derived from services to industry (drug regulatory agencies in other countries are more often only partly funded by licence fees). The MHRA's activities are 60% funded through licensing fees paid by those seeking marketing approvals and 40% through an annual service fee, also paid by the industry."
That oddly revealed fact in a parliamentary report makes the MRC's three-decade-long inaction over the health risks of benzos a fair bit easier to explain.