The NHS spent nearly £50m on sleeping pills last year, a sharp rise on previous costs, new figures reveal.

Some 15.3 million prescriptions were handed out in 2010-11, compared with 14.5 million in 2007-08, according to NHS figures obtained by the Co-operative Pharmacy.

A Freedom of Information request revealed health trusts spent £49.2million on the drugs in 2010-11, up from £42m three years previously - an increase of more than 17 per cent.

The highest number of prescriptions for sleeping pills were dispensed in the North West, which spent more than £8.5m on almost 2.5 million sleeping medication items.

Zoplicone was given to more than 5.2 million patients nationally, making it the most popular sleeping tablet.

Around a third of people in the UK are thought to have bouts of insomnia, which can become a debilitating problem for some.

Health chiefs have voiced concerns that frequent use of sleeping pills can lead to “psychological dependency”.

Mandeep Mudhar, NHS business director at the Co-operative Pharmacy, said: “Our research shows that millions of people suffer from a lack of sleep each year and are seeking medical help for the problem.

“While usage has risen steadily, the costs to the NHS have risen disproportionately, with costs going up at a greater rate.

“However some sleeping drugs are only recommended for short term use because they can lead to psychological dependency and lose their effectiveness over time.

“We would urge people who are suffering with insomnia or their use of sleeping pills to discuss their concerns with a pharmacist or their doctor.”

Research published in February found sleeping pills commonly prescribed in the UK may increase the risk of death more than four-fold.

A wide range of drugs was analysed for the study of more than 10,500 people taking the drugs, inclusing some used in the UK.

The research, from experts at the Jackson Hole Centre for Preventive Medicine in Wyoming and the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Centre in California, found that people prescribed sleeping pills were 4.6 times more likely to die during a 2.5-year period compared to those not on the drugs.