Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters National prescription drug helpline

A national prescription drug line could help to assess the non-medical use of prescription drugs

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 16 November 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6084
  1. Ian Hamilton, lecturer
  1. Department of Health Sciences, University of York, York YO10 5DD, UK
  1. ian.hamilton{at}

The BMA’s call for a national helpline to support people with prescription drug addiction is welcome in raising concerns about the misuse of prescription drugs.1 Despite a lack of research on the misuse of prescription drugs in the UK we can get a glimpse of which drugs might be causing problems and who is at risk from indicators such as rising prescriptions for drugs that can create dependency.

The synthetic opioid tramadol has seen a dramatic rise in prescriptions; the NHS Business Services Authority recorded 5.9 million prescriptions in 2005, which rose to 11.1 million in 2012.2 This was accompanied by an equally dramatic rise in fatalities due to overdose associated with tramadol, from none in 1993 to 240 in 2014. This prompted the government’s scientific advisers, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, to recommend that tramadol should be regulated and become a schedule three drug.3 The latest data from the Office for National Statistics indicate that this decision may have had an effect, with fatalities falling to 208 in 2015.4

A recent European study found that men and women are equally likely to misuse prescription drugs,5 unlike illicit drug use which is dominated by men.6

We urgently need to understand the extent of non-medical use of prescription drugs in the UK—the BMA’s suggestion of a national prescription drug helpline has the potential to assess demand.



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