BACKGROUND: Despite generally accepted advice to keep treatment short, benzodiazepines are often prescibed for more than six months. Prevention of long-term benzodiazepine use could be facilitated by the utilisation of risk indicators for long-term use. However, the characteristics of long-term benzodiazepine users described in the literature are based on studies in which long-term users were compared with non-users. Thus these characteristics may be imprecise. AIM: To study the characteristics of long-term benzodiazepine users by comparing their demographic data and health status (mental and physical) with those of short-term users. DESIGN OF STUDY: Cross-sectional comparison of short-term and long-term benzodiazepine users. SETTING: Patients from 32 GP practices of the Nijmegen Health Area, The Netherlands. METHOD: The characteristics of 164 short-term and 158 long-term benzodiazepine users in general practice were compared, using interview data and morbidity referral and prescription data from GP records. RESULTS: Long-term benzodiazepine users were (a) older, (b) had a more severe history of mental health problems for which they had received more serious treatment, (c) used more psychotropic drugs, (d) had a higher hospital specialist consultation frequency, (e) had more diagnoses of the following: diabetes, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension a serious skin disorder, and (f) reported a lower perceived general health status. There were no sex differences. CONCLUSION: Specific risk characteristics of long-term benzodiazepine users can be used to develop a risk profile for the management of benzodiazepines in general practice. We believe that (somatic) secondary care also contributes to benzodiazepine use. It may be worthwhile to coordinate care for benzodiazepine users between GPs and hospital specialists.