Too many Australians abusing prescription drugs

The demise of yet another pop icon from the use and abuse of pharmaceutical drugs has again put the spotlight on an increasing addiction to prescription medication among the general public.

Michael Jackson's death earlier this month has been blamed on fatal cocktail which included Xanax, Valium and Zoloft.

Two years ago the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey provided evidence that many Australians had an increasing addiction to prescription medication and this was backed by the results of a survey, released in December last year, which revealed that more than one million Australians have used painkillers for non-medical purposes.

At the time, 7% of people aged 14 years or more were found to have used painkillers, tranquilisers, barbiturates or steroids recreationally and more than half had done so that year - but the most popular pharmaceuticals were painkillers, with 2.5% of those surveyed reporting using them, and more than half of those users reported buying them from a shop or other retail outlet and the drugs apparently involved in Jackson's death - Xanax, Valium and Zoloft - are widely used in Australia.

According to the Pharmacy Guild of Australia Zoloft has been issued more than 230,000 times in the past 12 months while Xanax, an addictive sedative, was prescribed 5,000 times from January to May this year and Valium has already been prescribed 24,000 times this year alone.

The numbers suggest that Australians may have a dangerous addiction to prescription medication which is more likely in the 20-29 age group and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia has called for the drugs industry to be better regulated to ensure people cannot access large supplies of the drugs.

Xanax belongs to a group of drugs called benzodiazepines and is used to treat anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and anxiety caused by depression. Valium is a muscle relaxant used for tension associated with the normal stress of everyday life and may also be used to treat agitation, shakiness, and hallucinations during alcohol withdrawal and to relieve certain types of muscle pain. Zoloft is an antidepressant which belongs to a group of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and is used to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

Experts say an increasing number of people are misusing these drugs and if consumption continues to rise the overdose deaths are on track to outnumber heroin-overdose deaths and they say a new system for monitoring patients' use of pain-relief medication is called for.

This would allow doctors and pharmacists to determine whether a patient had recently been prescribed a drug and whether they had already purchased it at another location.

According to the Pharmacy Guild of Australia the technology is already available and government ministers are being approached about implementing the system.


  1. Malcolm Wright Malcolm Wright Australia says:

    What do we expect? We promote the consumption of a vast range of costly medicines with modest effect for diseases patients don't even know they have (like high cholesterol and high blood pressure and 'potential for' stroke and heart attack) and then complain when they want pills for diseases which actually make them uncomfortable! Is that a mixed message or what? We like the thought of health care check ups and blood tests and we medicalise the lives of the elderly. We over-regulate OTC medicines so that we force people to go to doctors and get prescriptions. We have educated a pill-popping society - now we have to either wind it back or live with it. And did we mention the vast consumption of opiates in SR forms for non-malignant chronic pain, and the bowel medicines to relieve the constipation they cause ?

  2. Luisa Luisa Australia says:

    This article is a bit misleading.  Xanax and Valium are addictive and often misused, but SSRIs like Zoloft have no recreational benefit, and are non-addictive, so how exactly are they being misused in Australia?  Granted, they are often incorrectly prescribed, but this is a separate issue and not "prescription drug abuse".

  3. Baylissa Baylissa United Kingdom says:

    Thank you for this article. Yes, Australia (like the UK, USA and many other countries) has a serious prescription medication problem. SSRIs may be reported to be non-addictive but all these drugs - benzos, antidepressants, painkillers including over-the-counter codeine-containing ones etc. - can result in a discontinuation syndrome (withdrawal).

    For different reasons, including fear of these withdrawal effects or a belief that the drug may have been beneficial in some way, many quickly reinstate when the withdrawal symptoms surface.  This perpetuates the dependence on the drug (manifesting as an addiction) whether the drug was prescribed by a doctor for a medical condition, or purchased over the internet or in a dark alley for recreational purposes. Benzodiazepines especially are potentially dangerous and need to be prescribed for short-term use (2 to 4 weeks) only. Doctors should warn patients of their highly addictive properties and that they should be tapered off and never stopped abruptly/cold-turkey.

    V Baylissa Frederick
    Author, "Benzo-Wise, A Recovery Companion"

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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