DOCTORS DISHED THEM OUT LIKE SWEETS UNTIL, LIKE OPIUM, THEY
GOT THE MASSES HOOKED
The Independent, August 19, 1996
by Patricia Wynn Davies
Dr Reg Peart
Drug problem: Dr Reg Peart, one of 40 victims of addiction to tranquillisers
such as Valium hoping to win compensation through the courts
The 'opium of the masses' was how Professor Malcolm Lader, a
psychopharmacologist, described benzodiazepines in an article in the late 1970s,
one of the first to warn of the dangers of addiction. By 1988 about 400,000
Britons were thought to be dependent and they remain the most commonly misused
prescription drugs in Britain. Now, however, the victims of addiction to
tranquillisers such as Valium and Ativan are fighting back through the courts.
Reg Peart, a former atomic scientist, is one of those hoping to win compensation
from the manufacturers.
Now 62, he began taking Valium in his late 30s for attacks of nausea and vertigo
and has only latterly begun to piece his life back together. As his addiction
took hold he lost his career, his marriage, and ended up one step from living on
the streets. He says that at his lowest point he had a mental age of 10. The
only reason the majority of people continue to take benzodiazepines for more
than a few months, he believes, is because they are addicted.
When he was eventually, abruptly, taken off the drug in 1985 he went into cold
turkey and given repeated electro-shock therapy to treat his withdrawal
symptoms. It took until 1992 until he began to feel right, although tests showed
he was still suffering 20 per cent intellectual impairment. 'It was like a car
running on low-grade petrol and then it runs out. The car won't start.'
A number of the litigants in person suffer from agoraphobia and most do not
work. Michael Behan, a 42-year-old former teacher, began taking Ativan in 1981
after getting panic attacks in lifts and underground trains. He says he became
addicted in a couple of months, but his doctor took the view that his original
illness was getting worse.
'You are told you are not addicted and you can't understand why you feel so
awful if you stop taking it. So you stay on drugs year after year.' The
addiction lasted seven years.
However, where the ultimate responsibility lies is unlikely to ever be tested in
a British court.
Up to 40 victims plan to press on with their claims against the makers of Valium
and Ativan, despite the spectacular collapse of what was once tipped to be the
biggest group negligence action ever. The claimants are facing an uphill task to
persuade the Court of Appeal to reverse a little-noticed decision last month in
which Mr Justice lan Kennedy, the High Court judge in charge of the litigation,
struck out the remaining 70 writs in an action originally numbering more than
5,000. Dr Peart and other claimants in the Victims of Tranquillisers group are
protesting that the striking out was unfair because it was due to early problems
in the organisation of the group action, not on the merits of individual cases.
If necessary, the complaint will be pursued to the European Court of Human
Rights, Dr Peart said.
Last month's ruling was the latest of a series of blows to claimants in the
benzodiazepine litigation which was launched in 1988 on behalf of thousands of
Britons who had become dependent on Valium, Ativan and other tranquillisers and
sleeping pills in the benzodiazepine group. More than 17,000 people came forward
and 13,000 were initially granted legal aid after a group of lawyers announced
plans to sue the multinationals which developed and marketed the drugs on the
ground that they should have known about the risk of addiction and warned of it.
The Government had warned in 1988 that prescriptions should be longer than two
to four weeks. But after the Legal Aid Board withdrew funding for claims against
Roche Products, makers of Valium, Mogadon and Librium, in 1993 and for those
against John Wyeth and Brother, makers of Ativan, the following year, the group
litigation effectively collapsed.
Around pounds £35million of public money had been spent on legal costs without a
penny reaching those who claimed to have been damaged through taking the drugs.
The 70 had soldiered on, all bar one as litigants in person without legal
representation. But Mr Justice lan Kennedy struck their claims out as an 'abuse
of process' because, among other reasons, the Legal Aid Board had deemed them
not reasonable to support and the costs of a complicated and strongly contested
trial would be enormous compared with any small amounts of damages recovered.
There had also been 'inordinate and inexcusable delay' in progressing the cases.
The two drug companies, which have always strongly denied liability, and had
hoped that the July decision would finally close the issue, promised they would
not enforce orders for costs they have been granted since legal aid was
withdrawn – but on condition that the 70 litigants do not appeal last month's
ruling. About 30 are expected to conclude that they would risk losing assets
such as their homes, but up to 40 consider they have nothing to lose. In any
event, claimants would have to exhaust all their UK legal remedies before
applying to Strasbourg. The Legal Aid Board refused funding for the appeal last
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights says that 'in the
determination of his civil rights ... everyone is entitled to a fair and public
hearing within a reasonable time'. Dr Peart said the litigation had showed that
the English legal system was totally inadequate to cope with group actions. In
the United States drug companies have paid out billions of dollars to patients
claiming they were injured by their products. In Britain no group action against
a commercial company has reached trial, although the 1,200 victims of the Opren
anti-arthritis drug secured pounds £2.275million in an out-of-court settlement
The remaining claimants complain that they have been denied the right to pursue
their actions because the costs would dwarf any damages. The root of the problem
was that investigation of cases viewed as unwinnable both slowed down the
progress of the case and clocked up enormous costs.