Could Anti-Anxiety Meds Be The Next Prescription Drug Epidemic?

By Paul Gaita 07/26/18

"We have this whole infrastructure set up to prevent overprescribing of opioids and address the need for addiction treatment. We need to start making benzos part of that."

Man holding handful of pills

An increase in the number of drug overdose deaths among individuals who used benzodiazepines has some state and local health officials concerned that the drugs could be at the center of a new prescription drug crisis.

Benzodiazepines, which include such medications as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, are commonly prescribed for anxiety or insomnia, and in the past two decades-plus, the number of prescriptions written for these medications has risen from 8 million to 14 million adults in the United States. But when taken in combination with prescription or illicit opioids, the likelihood of death can increase as much as tenfold, prompting medical and government officials alike to propose greater attention to their use.

According to an article in LiveWellNebraska, a joint publication by BlueCross BlueShield Nebraska and the Omaha World-Herald, the number of adults nationwide filling a prescription for benzodiazepines has increased two-thirds between 1996 and 2013—a period of time which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also saw the sales of prescription opioids quadruple in the U.S. 

LiveWellNebraska also noted that while prescriptions for benzodiazepines appear to have leveled or declined slightly in the years—and opioid prescriptions have dropped by a fifth since 2013—the level of prescribing for benzodiazepines still remains higher than rates in the mid-1990s.

Taken on their own or in combination with painkillers, the drugs carry health risks that range from debilitating withdrawal to possible fatality. Research from the CDC found that 23% of individuals who died from an opioid overdose also tested positive for benzodiazepine.

Reaction from the medical community has been divided between support for benzodiazepines, which have shown to be effective at relieving serious cases of anxiety and insomnia.

The International Task Force on Benzodiazepines, which counts scientists, researchers and pharmacologists in its number, has formed in response to what has been perceived as backlash against the drugs, despite their potential for positive impact.

But other health officials and medical professionals have stated that increased focus on the potential health concerns from benzodiazepines may possibly prevent a widespread epidemic like the opioid crisis.

"We have this whole infrastructure set up now to prevent overprescribing of opioids and address the need for addiction treatment," said Dr. Anna Lembke, a researcher and addiction specialist at Stanford University. "We need to start making benzos part of that. What we're seeing is just like what happened with opioids in the 1990s. It really does begin with overprescribing."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.