Call to end over-the-counter sales of codeine

ALL over-the-counter pain medications containing the “Hillbilly heroin” drug codeine should be made prescription-only to block the continuing rise in addictions to the narcotic, a leading expert has said.

Making the comments “in a personal capacity”, Dr John O Connor, medical director of the Drug Treatment Centre Board (DTCB), said the growing trend of addiction to the drug meant popular pain-killer products like Nurofen Plus, Solpadeine and Sudafed should be taken off the shelves due to concerns over their use.

Last year, Irish consumers spent a massive €21 million on Solpadeine alone, up €3m on the 2006 figure, raising concerns among the medical profession the product was being used as a cheap replacement for illegal narcotics. It is from the same medication family as heroin and contains the same active ingredient as morphine. Under current legislation, Irish chemists are restricted from selling any codeine product in large quantities to customers.

However, anecdotal evidence from drug treatment centres suggests that people who have become addicted to the substance are by-passing the legislation by buying codeine products in a number of different stores.

The situation is mirroring a similar rise in addiction to the over-the-counter medicine in the US, which has led to doctors describing codeine products as “Hillbilly heroin” as they can be used as a short-acting opiate when taken in large doses.

And calling for attention to be placed on the ongoing problem, Dr O Connor said the continuing sale of codeine products was helping to fuel the situation.

“That is becoming a problem. I would strongly suggest, speaking in a personal capacity, that codeine and some co-codamol medicines should be prescription-only,” the head of the DTCB, which contributes to Government drug management policies and sits on the National Drugs Strategy Team and the National Advisory Committee on Drugs, explained.

Concerns over the rise in addictions to over-the-counter products have previously been raised by Tony Geoghan, head of drug rehabilitation group, the Merchants Quay Project, who warned last year that Irish workers and parents who would never label themselves as drug addicts are risking being dragged into the addiction world.

“Codeine addiction affects people who wouldn’t describe themselves as drug-users, who might be afraid they would be labelled as addicts,” Mr Geoghan said. “There aren’t any official figures out there for it, but any number there is would be hugely under-representative.

“This whole issue has been hidden for years because it is not easy to get numbers for it. I remember one case 10 years ago where a young man got off heroin and then relapsed through using codeine. He just fell back into addiction from that,” he said.

The National Advisory Committee on Drugs has no official figures for the number of codeine addicted patients across the country because the medication is legally sold over-the-counter.

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