HRB Factsheet January 2017 – Seditives and tranquilisers: the Irish situation

Sedatives and tranquillisers: the Irish situation

January 2017

What are sedatives and tranquillisers?

‘Sedatives’ and ‘tranquillisers’ are commonly used terms for a group of medicines which depress, slow down or calm the brain and central nervous system. Benzodiazepines (‘Benzos’) are the most common type of drug in this group, but other drugs with the same effects are also included.

What do sedatives and tranquillisers do?

Sedatives and tranquillisers can be used as hypnotic or anti-anxiety agents, depending on the dosage and on the time of day that they are taken. Hypnotics are used to treat insomnia (lack of adequate restful sleep) which is causing distress. Anti-anxiety drugs (anxiolytics), such as benzodiazepines, are used to obtain relief from severe and disabling anxiety.¹

How do we know how many people use sedatives or tranquillisers in Ireland?

Every four years the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol (NACDA) and the Northern Ireland Public Health Information and Research Branch (PHIRB) commission a survey of the general population to estimate the number of people in Ireland who use drugs and alcohol.² Face-to-face interviews take place with respondents aged 15+a normally resident in households in Ireland and Northern Ireland. This type of survey is not designed to include people who do not normally live in private households (such as prisoners or hostel dwellers).

How many people use sedatives or tranquillisers in Ireland?

The 2014/15 survey involved 9,505 people (7,005 in Ireland and 2,500 in Northern Ireland). The results for Ireland showed that:

  • 14.3% of the population had used sedatives or tranquillisers at least once.
  • Lifetime usage of sedatives or tranquillisers is higher amongst females than males across all age groups.
  • Use was higher among 65+ year-olds (21.4%) than all other age groups.

Use among young people

The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) collects comparable data on substance use among 15–16-year-old students in 30 countries. According to the 2015 ESPAD report, 11% of Irish students (aged 15–16) reported that they had taken prescribed tranquillisers or sedatives at some point in their lives, and a further 2.8% had taken them without a prescription. Of 37 students who used non-prescribed tranquilisers or sedatives, 28 were aged 14 – 16 and 3 reported being 11 years old or younger. 20% of respondents said it was fairly easy or very easy to obtain sedatives or tranquilisers.

How many people receive treatment for sedative and tranquilliser use?

The National Drug Treatment Reporting System (NDTRS) provides data on treated drug and alcohol misuse in Ireland.b The most recent published data from the NDTRS4 shows that:
The number of cases entering treatment and reporting a benzodiazepine as their main problem drug increased from 78 in 2005 to 827 in 2014. Of the 827 cases who reported benzodiazepines as their main problem drug:

  • 347 (42%) were new cases.
  • 257 (31%) lived in Dublin.
  • 522 (63%) were men.
  • 50 (6%) were aged under 18 years; 577 (70%) were aged 18–34; 129 (15%) were aged 35–44; and 45 (5%) were aged 45–64.
  • 589 (71%) used benzodiazepines with other drugs.
  • 399 (48%) used benzodiazepines daily, 177 (21%) used it between two and six times per week, 57 (6%) used it once per week or less, and 150 (18%) had not used it in the last month.

How many people die from misuse of sedatives and tranquillisers?

The National Drug-Related Deaths Index (NDRDI) is a database of cases of death by drug and alcohol poisoning and deaths among drug users and people who are alcohol dependent. Two thirds of poisoning deaths involved poly-drug use, with an average of four different drugs
involved. Benzodiazepines were the most common drug group involved in deaths involving more than one drug (poly-drug). Diazepam (a benzodiazepine) was the most common single prescription drug, implicated in one-third (32%) of all poisoning deaths. Zopiclone-related deaths (a nonbenzodiazepine sedative drug) increased by 41% between 2013 and 2014.

Non-fatal overdoses and drug-related emergencies

According to the Hospital In-Patient Enquiry Scheme (HIPE), there were 4,233 cases of non-fatal overdose discharged from Irish hospitals in 2013. There was evidence of benzodiazepines in 19% (818) of cases of overdose.

What does the law say about sedatives and tranquillisers?

Under the Medicinal Products (Prescription and Control of Supply) Regulations 2003–2008, a prescription medication can only be supplied in accordance with a prescription, and the supply must be made from a registered pharmacy by or under the personal supervision of a registered pharmacist. It is illegal for prescription medicines to be supplied through mail-order or internet sites. A person who has in his possession a prescription medicine containing a substance controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation for the purpose of selling or otherwise supplying it is guilty of an offence under that legislation.

Changes to regulations under the Misuse of Drugs (Amendment) Bill will introduce stricter controls on benzodiazepines and an initiative to tackle overprescribing. You can find more information about Irish drug laws, offences and penalties on the Citizens Information Board website.

Seizures of sedatives and tranquillisers

The Garda send drugs seized to the laboratory of Forensic Science Ireland (FSI) for analysis. Seizures of a selection of benzodiazepines and Z-hypnotics analysed by FSI in 2014 included 201 seizures of Alprazolam, 420 seizures of Diazepam and 125 seizures of Zopiclone. According to the
2015 Garda annual report 749 grams of benzodiazepines were seized with a value of nearly one million euro.

For more information on sedatives and tranquillisers please refer to the following sources:

  1. National Advisory Committee on Drugs & Public Health Information and Research Branch (2012)
    Drug use in Ireland and Northern Ireland. 2010/11 drug prevalence survey: sedatives or tranquillisers and anti-depressants results. Bulletin 6. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs. [See glossary]
  2. National Advisory Committee on Drugs & Public Health Information and Research Branch (2016) Prevalence of drug use and gambling in Ireland & drug use in Northern Ireland. Bulletin 1. Dublin: National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol.
  3. Taylor, Keishia and Babineau, Kate and Keogan, Sheila and Whelan, Ellen and Clancy, Luke (2016) ESPAD 2015: European Schools Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs in Ireland. Dublin: Department of Health.
  4. Treatment data HRB National Drugs Library interactive tables.
  5. Health Research Board (2016) National Drug-Related Deaths Index 2004 to 2014 data. Dublin: Health
    Research Board.
  6. Health Research Board. Irish National Focal Point to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2016) Ireland: national report for 2015 – harms and harm reduction. Dublin: Health Research Board.
  7. Health Research Board. Irish National Focal Point to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2016) Ireland: national report for 2015 – drug markets and crime. Dublin: Health Research Board.
  8. An Garda Siochana. (2016) An Garda Siochana: annual report 2015. An Garda Siochana, Dublin.

See also: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2015) Perspectives on drugs: the misuse of benzodiazepines among high-risk opioid users in Europe. Lisbon: EMCDDA

How to cite this factsheet:

HRB National Drugs Library (2017) Sedatives and tranquilisers: the Irish situation. HRB National Drugs Library, Dublin


Other Factsheets in this series:

Cocaine: the Irish situation

Opiates: the Irish situation

Sedatives and tranquillisers: the Irish situation

Cannabis: the Irish situation

Alcohol: the Irish situation

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