Anti-Anxiety Drug Overdoses Have Quadrupled Since 1996

By McCarton Ackerman 02/22/16

The number of prescriptions for anxiety drugs including Valium and Xanax tripled between 1996 to 2013.

Anti-Anxiety Drug Overdoses Have Quadrupled Since 1996
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Anti-anxiety drug overdoses are now the latest epidemic to hit the US. A new study has shown that overdoses from these medications have quadrupled in the last two decades.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, came from researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. The team noted that while the number of prescriptions for anxiety drugs including Valium and Xanax tripled between 1996 to 2013, overdoses from them quadrupled during that same period.

However, they may have actually increased by more than four-fold. The researchers wrote that "The rate of overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased more than four-fold from 0.58 per 100,000 adults to 3.07 per 100,000 adults,” but noted the rates began to remain the same each year after 2010.

"Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time,” said lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber. In 2013, nearly one-third of the 23,000 prescription drug overdoses which occurred that year in the US came from benzos.

Although it’s unclear why the overdoses increased so much, he suggested it could be because people are using these medications for longer stretches of time or they’re being consumed by people who don’t have a prescription for them.

More than 5% of all Americans receive a prescription annually for benzodiazepines, but these prescriptions have increased dramatically in the last two decades. Bachhuber’s team concluded that “between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67%, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million.” There were also increases in the number of pills that patients were getting with their prescriptions.

There's also a correlation between the increase in anti-anxiety prescriptions and high numbers of emergency room visits related to them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 501,207 ER visits in 2011 were related to anti-anxiety and insomnia medications.

Other studies have also confirmed just how fatal these drugs can be. In April 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick in the U.K. wrote that those who took anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills had double the risk of death compared to those who did not. Their findings, which came from tracking more than 34,000 people over seven years, were published in the British Medical Journal.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.