Medicine: Tranquil Tales

  • Share
  • Read Later

Senate hears of Valium woes

"It was like somebody forced kerosene under your skin and every once in a while they set fire to it. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I felt depressed." This description of going cold turkey was voiced last week not by a typical junkie but by Dr.William Thomas of Long Beach, Calif. Like the priest, banker, teacher and housewife who told similar tales at a Senate health subcommittee hearing, the doctor was not addicted to heroin. He and the others were hooked on so-called minor tranquilizers, particularly Valium, the nation's bestselling prescription drug.

Their problem is shared by untold numbers of Americans. According to Dr. Joseph Pursch, who has treated such notables as Betty Ford and Senator Herman Talmadge for addiction at the Long Beach Naval Regional Medical Center, overuse of tranquilizers ranks second only to alcoholism as the nation's major health problem. Says Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy: "These drugs have produced a nightmare of dependence."

The causes are many. For example, pharmaceutical companies overpromote the drugs among physicians, often giving out free samples. (Said one doctor dependent on Librium: "I couldn't see any patients until the mailman came. Where other doctors would read their mail, I ate mine." Physicians in turn often seem oblivious to the dangers of the drugs. When confronted with a patient who is mentally—rather than physically—distressed, they reach for the prescription pad. Says Pursch: "If a woman walks into her doctor's office and says, 'I'm nervous, my husband drinks too much,' the doctor will automatically give her a tranquilizer." But patients must also bear some blame.They often demand medication as proof that the physician is doing his job. Result:more than 44 million prescriptions were filled last year for Valium alone.

Hoffman-La Roche, maker of Valium and Librium, contends that the incidence of addiction is low. The problem, says the company, comes from a small group of patients who either intentionally overdose themselves, stay on the medication too long or combine it with alcohol. Nevertheless, the company plans an educational campaign to alert patients to the risks of misusing Valium.

Tranquilizer addiction will surely remain a problem as long as Americans believe that salvation lies in a pill. Says Pursch: "These drugs make people feel better because they make them feel dull and insensitive. But they don't solve anything." His familiar message may be getting through; one survey shows that in the past six years, use of minor tranquilizers in the U.S. has dropped by 22%.