The government decision comes after data showed the number of opioid painkillers dispensed in the community increased by more than 60% in the past decade, from 14 million in 2008 to 23m in 2018, according to the Department of Health and Social Care.
The number of codeine-related deaths in England and Wales almost doubled over the same period, while co-codamol-related deaths also increased.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said yesterday (April 28) he is “incredibly concerned” about a rise 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 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,” he added.
Warning labels expected by end of the year
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) told C+D today it will be seeking “voluntary compliance from industry” and, “if necessary, the changes will be mandated”.
Warnings are expected to appear on product labelling by the end of the year, and will state that the medicines “can cause addiction” and “contain opioids”, the MHRA said.
Director of the MHRA’s vigilance and risk management of medicines division Dr June Raine said the decision is an “important first step to help minimise the risks of addiction associated with opioid medicine, while helping patients to get the right information at the right time to support their care”.
RPS: Good idea “in principle”
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s spokesperson on pain medicine Professor Roger Knaggs told C+D: “In principle, it seems like a good idea to draw attention to the addictive potential of opioid medicines, and brings them in line with additional warnings on over-the-counter codeine and dihydrocodeine-containing medicines”.
“It’s essential for prescribers and pharmacists to discuss both the benefits and harms associated with opioid medicines with patients on a regular basis,” Mr Knaggs said.
“Opioids should only be continued when they provide sufficient pain relief to allow a person to be more active.”
In 2018, pharmacy minister at the time Steve Brine commissioned Public Health England to review the rise in prescribing of addictive drugs, including benzodiazepines, Z-drugs, opioid pain medication and antidepressants. The report, due in “early 2019”, has not yet been published.