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Press Release

Press release

Increase in numbers seeking treatment for, or dying from, sedative misuse in Ireland

15 December 2010

There has been an increase in recent years in the number of cases* presenting for treatment, and in the number of people dying, as a result of misuse of sedatives (benzodiazepines), such as diazepam.

The latest figures presented by the Health Research Board (HRB) indicate that the annual number of cases treated for problem benzodiazepine use increased by just over 63% in six years, rising from 1,054 in 2003 to 1,719 in 2008. These prescription drugs were also implicated in nearly one third of all deaths by drug poisoning between 1998 and 2007, with the annual number of deaths, rising from 65 in 1998 to 88 in 2007.  

According to Dr Suzi Lyons, senior researcher at the HRB, these increases may reflect a combination of factors: an increase in benzodiazepine use in the population, an increase in the number of available treatment places, or an increase in the number of treatment centres reporting to the HRB National Drug Treatment Reporting System.

'Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs which are legitimately used to treat a range of conditions, such as anxiety, insomnia and seizures. However, while they are considered safe for short-term use, the risk of overuse, abuse and dependence is well documented. Prescribers and users need to be more aware of the potentially fatal effects of benzodiazepines when they are used with other substances', says Dr Lyons.

When a person enters treatment, their main problem substance and up to three additional problem substances are recorded. While the number of treated cases reporting a benzodiazepine as their main problem drug was small, it increased by 120% in the six-year period, rising from 76 in 2003 to 167 in 2008. There was a smaller increase (of 59%) in the number reporting a benzodiazepine as an additional drug, with the annual number increasing from 982 to 1,562 in the same period.

'Looking at the figures by region, we found that, until 2007, the numbers of new cases reporting a benzodiazepine as their main problem drug were higher outside Dublin (city and county); however, the numbers reporting it as an additional substance were higher in Dublin throughout the reporting period. This may reflect different patterns of drug use as well as differences in access to treatment', explains Dr Lyons.

Two thirds (64%) of cases reported using benzodiazepines on a daily basis. When analysed by gender and age, the figures show that 70% of all cases starting treatment between 2003 and 2008 were men. Higher proportions of women in the older age groups (over 29 years) presented for treatment for benzodiazepine as a main problem drug, in contrast to higher proportions of men in the younger age groups.

The median age of new cases who reported a benzodiazepine as their main problem drug fell from 34 to 25 years over the reporting period. The median age of those returning to treatment remained at 29 years.

'While the number of cases aged under 18 years was small, increasing proportions of both new and returning cases in the study period were in this age group. This has implications for health promotion and drug awareness campaigns, as well as for service provision for this vulnerable group', says Dr Lyons.

Twice as many men as women died as a result of misuse of benzodiazepines along with other substances in the period 1998-2007. The proportion of male deaths was highest in the younger age groups. The proportion of female deaths was highest in the age groups over 40 years, at 54%, compared to just over a quarter (27%) of male deaths.

Almost all deaths where benzodiazepines were implicated involved the use of more than one substance. The substances most frequently implicated in death alongside benzodiazepines were alcohol and opiates.

'An overdose of benzodiazepines can cause respiratory depression, coma and death. However, very few deaths are reported as resulting from taking this drug on its own. As seen in the death statistics, more than one substance is usually involved in drug poisoning deaths, most often alcohol and opiates.

Benzodiazepines are known to amplify the depressant effects of other drugs, which increases the risk of overdose. It?s important, therefore, that problem use of benzodiazepines is approached in the context of polysubstance use', says Dr Lyons.

Multiple drug use was also common among cases presenting for treatment; many benzodiazepine users also used opiates and/or alcohol. Eighty per cent of cases reporting a benzodiazepine as an additional problem substance were opiate users. Alcohol was the most common additional substance used by cases reporting a benzodiazepine as a main problem substance.

The data presented in this press release are based on HRB Trends Series 9: Problem benzodiazepine use in Ireland: Treatment (2003 to 2008) and deaths (1998 to 2007)which is available in the publications section of the HRB website  at

*One case does not necessarily represent one person.  A proportion of people presented for treatment on more than one occasion during the period under review.

For more information contact:

Gillian Markey, Communications Manager

Health Research Board

m 00353 87 2288514

t 00353 1 2345103

e gmarkey(at)


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