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In shadow of opioids, a sedative epidemic is taking root

tombstones shaped like half pills
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While the abuse of prescription opioids has received widespread attention, benzodiazepine (BZD) sedatives have seen a similar growth rate, with prescription rates nearly doubling since 2003.

Why it matters: In the U.S., deaths associated with BZDs like Xanax and Valium have increased from 135 in 1999 to over 11,500 in 2017. The dangers of misusing these potentially addictive drugs are particularly acute for adults over 50, who have experienced the largest increase in BZD prescriptions.

What's happening: The increase in deaths and overdoses associated with BZDs has been driven by misuse. Although BZDs are intended to be used for less than 14 days, chronic use — over 120 days — is common.

What's needed:

What to watch: Policymakers are beginning to recognize the harmful side effects of BZDs and other hypnotics. Policy reform — coupled with prescriber accountability and provider and patient education — could mitigate dangerous trends of misuse.

Nambi J. Ndugga and Elsa Pearson are policy analysts at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). Melissa Garrido is the associate director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the Veterans Health Administration and a research associate professor at BUSPH.