KARACHI: Although the ratio of women using drugs is far less than men in the country, the authorities are alarmed that the misuse of tranquillisers and sedatives is on the rise among them, it emerged on Sunday.

The latest official figures show that proportionately more men use drugs than women, though, officials admit that the national prevalence estimates for women are underestimated, which are 2.9 per cent against men’s 8.5pc.

However, what worries experts and officials alike is a higher level of tranquilliser and sedative misuse, and comparable level of opioid-based painkiller and amphetamine type stimulants (ATS) use among women.

A report by the Narcotics Control Division said this year that populations that had experienced stress, anxiety, and other difficult life experiences, including post-traumatic stress disorder, might be at a higher risk of painkiller, tranquilliser and sedative misuse. Unlike Pakistan, reports suggest, in many countries ATS is often used by women for weight loss.

A 2010 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime questioned the low prevalence of drug use in Pakistani women. It said unlike male drug users who congregated and used drugs with others, drug use was a discreet, hidden and more of an individual activity for females.

The exhaustive studies by the UN agency, which included more than 50,000 household interviews as well as interviews of more than 3,000 problem drug users, showed that women constituted only 25pc of the total population of drug users in Pakistan.

“This is likely due to the higher levels of stigma associated with drug use by women. Among the small population of household survey respondents that revealed past-year illicit drug use, about 42 per cent were women. Of those who qualified for dependent drug use some 30pc were female. Further, among those who injected drugs, 45pc were female. These numbers show that the gender ratio among drug users may not be as imbalanced as the estimates of drug use prevalence suggest,” the UN report had observed.

Officials said with the increasing economic woes, social discrepancies, domestic problems and exacerbating security in the country, women tended to seek solace in tranquillisers, ATS etc. Besides, their share in use of other drugs was also on the rise.

“It is increasing among women as per my experience, but I tell you what they could not express as freely as our male citizens, like they do many things in isolation, they seek comfort in solitude as well,” said an expert.

He said he found most female patients suffering from such problems because of difficult economic situation.

“Security fears too perturb them, but they come in the last of the strand of a host of problems our women encounter,” he said.

The findings of a recent official household survey revealed high levels of non-medical use of prescription drugs among men and women who had been hospitalised in the past year for mental health issues. In particular, non-medical use was high among those hospitalised for anxiety, depression, and stress, after adjusting for age, sex, urban or rural area, and literacy level.

Moreover, men and women suffering from chronic illnesses and past-year hospitalisation are found to be at a high risk of misusing opioid-based painkillers without necessary medical supervision.

Officials said drug use patterns varied considerably between men and women. Women were more likely to consume amphetamines and painkillers, with 92pc of female users regularly misusing painkillers, and tranquillisers and sedatives.

In comparison, only 48pc of male users misuse these substances. Men are more likely to use cannabis than women, at 44 per cent and less than 1pc, respectively.

Officials said it was also possible that women tended to misuse prescription opioids rather than heroin or opium.

They said women were less likely than men to report knowing about illicit drugs, but in some regions the degree to which women denied knowledge of certain substances was surprising. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa only 82pc had heard of heroin and in Balochistan only 68pc admitted to having heard of heroin.

The use of the ATS is still less prevalent than other drugs. However, the ATS use was found to be equal among men and women.

Non-medical use of prescription drugs have been found to be used by a sizeable population of men and women although it is significant that more women use tranquillizers and sedatives than men, said the survey.

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