Deaths linked to prescription drugs for treating anxiety and insomnia are at the highest level in the North East for a decade.
Charity, Turning Point, analysed the latest NHS and ONS figures and found that benzodiazepines – a class of sedative – were mentioned on the death certificates of 78 people in the North East in 2020.
Turning Point says this represents a 47% increase in 10 years and compares with 53 in 2010.
The North East ranks joint top amongst the English regions analysed for highest benzodiazepine deaths in 2020.
Known as ‘benzos’, these psychoactive substances help calm brain activity and are used to treat fits along with other conditions.
However, drug dealers and other suppliers also sell them illegally to counteract the effect of stimulants like mephedrone (Mcat) and they are highly addictive, which can lead to overdose.
The death certificate data does not list benzos as the main cause of loss of life and no comprehensive figures are available to estimate the number of people addicted.
However, Turning Point is calling for urgent action to prevent further tragedies and improve support for those who are dependent on the drugs.
The charity says cuts in funding for substance misuse support services, increased pressure on primary care and benzo users ageing as a group are among possible reasons for the rise in deaths.
Data from health authorities shows that in the North East and Yorkshire the number of patients prescribed diazepam specifically has dropped by 26% since 2015, according to Turning Point.
Dr David Bremner, Turning Point group medical director, said the drop in prescriptions was welcome but more action is needed.
He added: “The increase in deaths across the country is a concerning trend – each one is a tragedy.
“Cutbacks to addiction support services and increased pressures on GPs are among factors that are likely to blame for this rise.
“Services are working with GPs to help people reduce their use of benzos and find alternatives to medication. Sustained investment in treatment services is key if the government is to address this public health crisis.”