Opioid painkillers to carry prominent addiction warnings in UK

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All opioid medicines in the United Kingdom will have to carry prominent addiction warnings to protect people ‘from the darker side of pain killers’, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced, writes Toby Helm for the Observer. The government action comes after data revealed a 60% rise in prescriptions for opioid drugs over the past 10 years.

The number of such medicines dispensed in the community (excluding hospital settings) has risen from more than 14 million in 2008 to 23 million in 2018.

Opioids – such as morphine or fentanyl – are derived from opium and are prescribed to help people manage severe or chronic pain. While they can be highly effective, there is increasing evidence of overuse and misuse.

Some opioids – such as codeine-based painkillers – are available at pharmacies over the counter: these are weaker but can also cause addiction if misused.

Darker side of painkillers

Announcing the plans Hancock said: “I have been incredibly concerned by the recent increase in people addicted to opioid drugs. Painkillers were a major breakthrough in modern medicine and are hugely important to help people manage pain alongside their busy lives – but they must be treated with caution.

“We know that too much of any painkiller can damage your health, and some opioids are highly addictive and can ruin lives like an illegal drug.

“Things are not as bad here as in America, but we must act now to protect people from the darker side of painkillers. We need to place a greater focus on making sure that these medicines are used appropriately and for pain management alone, and make sure people are fully aware of the risks.”

In the past decade the number of codeine-related deaths in England and Wales has more than doubled. Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: “We know that long-term use of painkillers can lead to life-altering and sometimes fatal addictions – so I am delighted to see measures put in place to raise awareness of the risks of codeine and prescribed drugs.

“It is vital that anyone who is prescribed strong painkillers takes them only as long as they are suffering from serious pain. As soon as the pain starts to alleviate, the drugs have done their job, and it is important to switch to over-the-counter medications which do not carry the same risk of addiction.”

Health experts say abuse of opioids can also cause problems with the central nervous system or respiratory system that can be fatal.

Government plans

Public Health England is already undertaking a review into prescription medication addiction, due later this year.

Under the government’s plans the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will have the power to insist that opioids carry warnings, following recommendations from the UK’s Commission on Human Medicines (CHM) opioid expert working group.

Dr June Raine, director of the MHRA’s vigilance and risk management of medicines division, said: “This is an important first step to help minimise the risks of addiction associated with opioid medicines, while supporting patients to get the right information at the right time to support their care.”

Opioid painkillers to carry prominent addiction warnings


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