THOUSANDS of people in lockdown are risking addiction to prescription sleeping pills.
Today we can reveal new figures that show the number of deaths from the medicines has nearly DOUBLED over the past decade — and experts believe those figures will soar as a consequence of the Covid pandemic.
New figures that show the number of deaths from the medicines has nearly DOUBLED over the past decadeCredit: Getty Images – Getty
The pills are often first prescribed by club doctors to help them doze off after the high of playing, particularly in mid-week games.
The NHS bill for sleeping pills is £10million a year, and doctors are even described as “pushers”.
But it is the internet sales of the drugs that have not been prescribed by healthcare professionals which experts describe as “alarming”.
Experts believe figures will continue to soar as a consequence of the pandemicCredit: Alamy
Addiction specialist Dr Robert Lefever told The Sun on Sunday: “The number of people using sleeping pills has soared during lockdown. These can be dangerous.
“They are mood-altering drugs and will affect anyone who has an addictive nature. It was a problem even before the pandemic but lockdown has definitely made it worse.
“People are highly stressed, they are not sleeping and they need a solution. They want a quick fix so take sleeping pills either prescribed by their GP or they buy online. Doctors are the major pushers of these drugs and I use the word pusher quite deliberately.
“They do have a choice. They don’t have to give patients what they ask for. These drugs are over-prescribed by the NHS. Along with cancer delays and a huge backlog in routine surgeries, sleeping pill addiction will be one of the secondary health problems caused by the pandemic.”
The new figures, from government records for England and Wales, reveal the combination of sleeping pills and alcohol is deadly. There were 539 deaths from sleeping pills including Z drugs in 2019, of which 139 had alcohol in their system.
In 2009, there were 340 deaths in total – nearly 50 per cent fewer. Deaths specifically from Z drugs increased from 79 to 140.
Addiction specialist Dr Robert Lefever says ‘sleeping pill addiction will be one of the secondary health problems caused by the pandemic’Credit: Shutterstock
New figures reveal there were 539 deaths from sleeping pills including Z drugs in 2019, of which 139 had alcohol in their systemCredit: Shutterstock
The figures point to a worrying rise in abuse over the decade. Searches for websites selling zopiclone peaked in January this year, according to Google Trends, which shows a spike in the number of web users looking for the drug through shopping searches.
Among the most popular recent searches were “buy zopiclone UK next day delivery” and “how long does zopiclone stay in your system?”
Searches for zolpidem hit a high last summer, while people asking Google where they could “buy zolpidem online” spiked over Christmas. Buying Z drugs without a prescription is against the law — and amounts to possession of a Class C drug.
Professor Owen Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist who works to prevent online medication addiction for Central and North West London NHS, said: “We have seen people from 15 years old to pensioners, from every walk of life, addicted to them.
“With the younger generation these are often seen as fashionable recreational drugs that they mix with alcohol, putting themselves at real risk of overdose. Later in life it is people who start by getting them from their doctors safely for a couple of weeks for anxiety, insomnia, stress and relationship problems.”
Doctors will only prescribe the Z drugs for up to four weeks because of the risk of addiction. When doctors tell patients to stop, they find other ways to buy them.
Premier League footballers use ‘Z drugs’ like Zolpidem and Zopiclone with alcohol to get a recreational highCredit: Shutterstock
Despite doctors only prescribing the Z drugs for up to four weeks because of the risk of addiction, a worrying rise in abuse over the decade can be seenCredit: Alamy
Prof Bowden-Jones said: “Prescribed under supervision of a doctor and used in the short term, these medications are safe and can be very helpful. But users can build up a tolerance and start taking more. We have seen people taking more than ten times the recommended dose of zopiclone. They are dependent on them.
“People become withdrawn from friendships, relationships and work. The drug takes priority over everything else. As yet we don’t know the long-term effects. These people don’t see themselves as drug users as they are using a medication — not something like cocaine or ketamine — so they often think it is fine and feel their use is safe. But sleeping pills are prescription drugs for a reason — they can be dangerous.
“They can be deadly, particularly if combined with other sedative drugs such as alcohol. The consequences can include overdose, dependence and severe withdrawals. During the pandemic the internet has been used for everything and now we are seeing the normalisation of buying prescription drugs that can be dangerous, potentially fatal. People don’t realise the risks they are taking. It is terrifying.
“Around half of the drugs bought online are counterfeit, often with stronger medications substituted into a tablet that are more harmful. The websites look legitimate, they give an impression of safety, but they are simply not. It is a real problem.”
WEDINOS, a laboratory run by Public Health Wales, tests drugs sent in anonymously as part of a harm-reduction service. The number of benzo- diazepines, or “benzos” such as Valium, sent to them increased by 25 per cent in 2020 — when the pandemic began — compared with the year before.
And there has been a rise in the level of substitution in tablets compared with 2019. The lab’s analysis of zopiclone pills bought on the black market showed they contain caffeine, paracetamol, anaesthetics and medication to treat worms.
Prof Bowden-Jones said ‘They can be deadly, particularly if combined with other sedative drugs such as alcohol’Credit: Getty Images – Getty
He added ‘Insomnia is awful but so too are sleeping pills’Credit: Science Photo Library
One zolpidem sample contained the Class A drug MDMA. On Monday The Sun revealed footballers were being prescribed the pills by club doctors to help them doze off after matches.
But the story told how scores of them are mixing the medication with booze to get a buzz. Insiders revealed one England star took zopiclone with champagne and vodka. Two more have turned to the black market to get their hands on pills.
Dr Lefever added: “Online outlets are a godsend for people who want to take sleeping pills in secret. Insomnia is awful but so too are sleeping pills.”
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