The majority of the users identified by the study, which used data obtained by the Bridge Project, a drug treatment charity in Bradford, had been taking benzodiazepines for many years. Of the long-term users taking up services, for example, over 76% had been taking the drugs for over 6 years.
Although the study authors calculated an estimated average of 266,907 long-term benzodiazepine users nationwide, the variability seen between surgeries suggests that the figure may be as low as 148,474 or as high as 385,332.
Given the exclusion from the analysis of patients under 16 years or over 80 years, those receiving palliative care, those who were ill at the time, those diagnosed with epilepsy, and those with severe chronic mental health issues; and the probable underreporting of long-term benzodiazepine users by practices; the estimations are thought likely to be conservative.
Professor David Taylor, a spokesman for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said that benzodiazepines should usually only be taken for a few weeks and that the Society did not support long-term use of the drugs other than in "exceptional circumstances" where the benefits outweighed the risks for the patient.
The BMA has called for a 24-hour national helpline to support patients with addiction problems as part of a project to tackle prescription drug dependence.
"Establishing a national helpline should be a top priority to provide better service to individuals with prescribed drug dependence," said Dr Andrew Green, the BMA's GP clinical and prescribing policy lead. "Doctors would also welcome more robust guidance on managing prescription medicine dependence and withdrawal."