The government has launched what it describes as a “landmark” independent review into prescription drug addiction in the UK.
The move comes as the latest figures show one patient in eleven was prescribed a potentially addictive drug last year.
Public Health England (PHE) will investigate why the prescribing of such medicines has increased 3 percent over the last five years, and also why the number of antidepressant prescriptions in England has doubled in the last decade.
The review will cover benzodiazepines and z-drugs, pregabalin and gabapentin, opioid pain medicines and antidepressants.
The agency says its intends to assess the scale of the problem, the harms caused by dependence and withdrawal, how they may be prevented and the best way to respond.
“We know this is a huge problem in other countries like the United States - and we must absolutely make sure it doesn’t become one here,” said public health minister Steve Brine.
“While we are world-leading in offering free treatment for addiction, we cannot be complacent - that’s why I’ve asked PHE to conduct this review.”
The Royal College of GPs has welcomed the review but warns against jumping to the conclusion that more drugs being prescribed is necessarily a bad thing.
“Advances in medical research mean that more medications are constantly becoming more available for patients, and they can increasingly be used to improve their health – and the nature of our NHS is that these medications are available to anyone who could benefit from them,” said Chair Helen Stokes-Lampard.
“Many addictive medications, when prescribed and monitored correctly, and in line with clinical guidelines, can be very effective in treating a wide range of health conditions. But all drugs will have risks and potential side-effects.
“We hope that conclusions from this review will include highlighting the need for greater provision of and access to alternative treatments in the community – and for those patients who do become addicted to prescription medications to have easy, consistent, but also confidential access to appropriate, high-quality support.”
“Many pain medications have health risks, including risk of addiction, which is a real concern for the millions of people living with severe chronic pain. It's particularly worrying that more people are turning to prescription painkillers without getting a prescription from their doctor," noted Dr Benjamin Ellis, senior clinical advisor for Arthritis Research UK.
"This all reflects the problem of unmanaged pain, and a need for better pain management options."
Findings of the review are due to be published early next year.