Opioid painkillers will soon have to carry a prominent warning about the risk of addiction in a bid to tackle growing concerns around prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
Prescriptions for opioid-based medication have increased 60% in the last 10 years to 23 million annually, according to Department of Health data.
The drugs, derived from opium, have a sedative effect and can cause feelings of pleasure.
The UK is among the biggest consumers of opioids in Europe, yet while the drugs are super-effective for acute emergency pain, in 90% of long-term chronic pain cases, they do not even work.
A long-term dependency on prescription drugs can have life-changing consequences and similar side effects to illegal drugs.
Users can build up a tolerance and require stronger doses to have the same effect, and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.
Although considerably lower risk than illegal street opioids like heroin, an overdose of prescription painkillers can still kill the user.
A number of high-profile figures have admitted a dependency on prescription drugs, notably Ant McPartlin of showbiz duo Ant and Dec.
The presenter has been open about his stints in rehab trying to tackle his addiction to painkillers, which began following a knee operation in 2015.
The prescription opioid crisis in the US is now so severe that in 2017 the country’s Department of Health declared a national emergency.
It estimated that by 2017, 11.4 million people in the country were misusing prescription painkillers.
Dependence on the drug can have devastating consequences for the user.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced on Sunday that packaging on common medications such as morphine or fentanyl will now have to carry a warning informing patients about the risk of addiction.
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 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 to 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.”
The wording of the warning must be based on guidance from the Commission on Human Medicines’ opioid expert working group and will be enforced by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Professor 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 medication like paracetamol which do not carry the same risk of addiction that comes with long-term use.”
A specific deadline for the introduction of the warning has not yet been set but the regulator thinks a review could be concluded within the year.
A spokesman for the MHRA said: “We are working as quickly as possible to introduce regulatory changes once all the evidence has been assessed.
“These labelling changes are a first step in a number of regulatory measures being developed.
“It will take a certain amount of time for the new packaging to reach patients.
“While we have not given the Expert Working Group a specific deadline, we have asked them to work promptly and, given the progress already made, we anticipate the review will be completed in 2019.”
What are opioids?
- A large group of drugs used mainly to treat pain
- Includes naturally occurring chemicals like morphine and codeine, as well as synthetic drugs
- Codeine, morphine and methadone are among opioids judged by the World Health Organization as essential for treatment of pain and end-of-life care
- Some opioid medications - methadone and buprenorphine - are used to help people break their addictions to stronger opioids like heroin
What are they used for?
- Moderate and severe pain relief
- Limited time treatment of pain that does not respond to standard painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol
- Usually used for acute pain - such as after surgery or terminally-ill cancer patients
Why are they dangerous?
- They can be highly addictive
- Pleasurable feeling that results from taking opioids can contribute to psychological dependence on the drugs
- Higher doses can slow breathing and heart rate, which can lead to death
- Mixing with alcohol or other sedatives such as benzodiazepines can also have serious consequences