Last Sunday, the UK Observer newspaper reported that a parliamentary inquiry “has concluded” that the “misprescribing” of prescription drugs by some doctors is leading to addiction and dependence among patients.

According to the article, the investigation had also concluded that: “although the reclassification of some substances from prescription-only to over-the-counter (OTC) has resulted in often significant cost savings for consumers, the abuse or misuse of these substances can result in serious side-effects, such as dependency, addition, hospitalisation and potentially even death".

However the inquiry, which is being conducted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse (APPGDM), is still in the process of gathering evidence and will not be publishing its conclusions until much later in the year, PharmaTimes has learnt.

The APPGDM, a cross-party group of Members of Parliament and peers, announced last July that it would be investigating the misuse of both prescription and OTC medicines and the extent of the damage which such abuse causes. The scope of the problem is unknown, but is believed to affect thousands of people in the UK, said the panel members. “We are also increasingly concerned about the number of users buying medicines online, where they face the very real risk of buying counterfeit products that may be dangerous,” added committee chairman Dr Brian Iddon (Labour MP for Bolton South East).

The deadline for submissions of written evidence to the inquiry was extended to November 9 last year, and speaking to PharmaTimes last night, Dr Iddon said the panel has now collected around 70 pieces of evidence and is planning to hold oral evidence sessions between March and June. The report will then be written over the summer.

During this time, the panel will be working with the APPG on Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, which is also launching an inquiry into the dangers of benzodiazepines. This month, this group’s chairman Jim Dobbin (Labour MP for Heywood and Middleton) has tabled a range of questions in Parliament relating to issues including the numbers of deaths nationally from misuse of benzodiazepines, how many involuntary tranquilliser addicts have been successfully withdrawn by National Health Service treatment and why benzodiazepines are not included in the treatment outcomes profile monitoring questionnaire.

However, Dr Iddon told PharmaTimes that there is far more evidence available on tranquilliser addiction than there is on dependence on painkillers and other OTCs; people feel too ashamed to admit that they have become involuntarily addicted to medicines containing codeine, for example. Therefore, the inquiry has particularly sought both written and oral evidence from groups such as Overcount, a Scottish agency which helps people addicted to OTCs. “We have been lobbying for many years for appropriate research into the problem of OTC drug abuses,” said Overcount’s founder David Grieve, a former cough-medicine addict.

Dr Iddon also told PharmaTimes that the Observer article had been written “well before Christmas.” However, the issue has been highlighted by a number of high-profile cases, the most recent being the death last month of Australian film actor Heath Ledger at the age of 28, apparently from an accidental overdose of painkillers and tranquillisers. An autopsy reportedly found that the Hollywood star had taken two narcotic painkillers, three benzodiazepine tranquillisers and an OTC sleep remedy.

A spokeswoman for DrugScope, the charity which is providing secretarial support for the inquiry, told PharmaTimes that the report is expected to be published this autumn.

- Last year, the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board warned that the misuse of prescription and OTC medicines would soon overtake the use of all illegal drugs worldwide, and that a market for counterfeit tranquillisers, sedatives, stimulants and painkillers was growing fast.