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Topic section: Addiction on prescription
Addiction on prescription
Picture: 10413026s3.jpg

Grape alcohol can be used pharmaceutically, for relaxation and for self-destruction.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Early in the twentieth century barbiturate drugs were introduced. They were used as sleeping pills but were addictive and could kill when used in excess. Safer mood-affecting drugs have since been introduced. They have offered great benefits but the question of addiction is raised even with the most modern of these

The most ancient and most used mind-altering drug is alcohol


The most ancient and most used mind-altering drug is alcohol. This drug can help life and, if abused, can destroy it. Many other mind-altering drugs also have similar ambiguities – and what constitutes a dangerous level varies from person to person.

The nineteenth century saw the use of many mind-altering drugs. Chloral hydrate was introduced towards the end of the century as a sleeping potion. Opium and its solution in alcohol, known as laudanum, were widely used. The import of opium for smoking was banned in Britain in 1909. Ironically, just as opium was being controlled, the first of the barbiturate sleeping pills became available (Veronal was developed in 1903).

Barbiturates gradually replaced chloral hydrate, but people became dependent on them, and needed more and more to get the same effect. Unfortunately, in overdose they could kill – it was claimed that Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 was caused by an overdose of the barbiturate Nembutal.

In the 1950s a second generation of sedatives were marketed as Quaaludes and Miltown. They were less addictive but could still be dangerous. Quaaludes became a widely used illegal relaxant.

Thalidomide, which caused malformations of babies in the womb, was introduced in the late 1950s. It was intended to be a particularly effective sedative for pregnant mothers suffering morning sickness. The scandal of its release caused a general strengthening of drug regulation around the world.

Picture: 1983_5236_DHA7027s3.jpg

Woman reaching for a box of sleeping pills, 1954.
NMPFT/Syndication International


Far more widely used have been the benzodiazepines, known as sedative-hypnotics. The first was Librium and the second Valium, introduced in 1963. In Britain 17 million prescriptions for benzodiazepines were given every year. These treated anxiety and were intended for short-term use. However, some people, particularly women, took them for years and found them difficult to give up. In June 2002, a patient was awarded £40,000 damages by a court on account of the suffering caused by his addiction.

Depression is the most common emotional illness and drugs to treat depression have been widely developed. The best known is the family of SSRIs (Selective Serotonine Reuptake Inhibitors) of which the first was Prozac. Critics charge that some members of this family may also be addictive and that ‘depression’ rates have soared since the illness has become treatable.

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Topic: The germs strike back
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Germs were once the biggest threat to life. Since the introduction of antibiotics, however, death rates from bacterial diseases have fallen dramatically. You are now twenty times less likely to die from germs than people were in 1937. However the rising number of cases of ‘superbug’ infections shows that the germs are fighting back.  > more

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Topic section: Vaccination for the nation
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Using vaccines to control diseases caused by viruses has been extraordinarily successful, though sometimes disastrous and always controversial. Modern debates over MMR are only the latest stage in 200 years of disputes.  > more
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