All opioid medicines dispensed in the UK will need to have prominent addiction warnings to help protect people from the “darker side of painkillers,” health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
The new measure comes after data revealed that the number of opioid medication prescriptions dispensed in the community has increased by more than 60 per cent over the past 10 years, rising from over 14 million prescriptions in 2008 to 23 million last year.
The data also showed that codeine-related deaths in England and Wales had more than doubled over the same period, with more than 150 fatalities last year.
The newly announced plans will see the MHRA given powers to insist that POM and P opioids carry warnings on their outer packaging. These warning labels are expected to be introduced by the end of the year.
Opioid medicines already come with warnings on their patient information leaflets, but it is hoped that making them more visible will have a greater impact.
Mr 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 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.”
Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, 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 medication like paracetamol, which do not carry the same risk of addiction that comes with long-term use.”
A Public Health England investigation into prescription drug addiction is currently underway, with findings expected to be published later this year.