All opioid medicines in the UK will now carry addiction warnings on their labels, the health secretary has announced.
It comes after data revealed a 60% rise in prescriptions for opioid drugs in England and Wales over the past 10 years.
The number of prescriptions dispensed in the community in 2008 was 14 million, but that figure rose to 23 million in 2018.
In England and Wales, the number of codeine-related deaths also increased to over 150 in 2018 – more than double the figure in 2008.
Health secretary Matt 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.’
England’s chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: ‘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.’
Dr Andrew Green, BMA GP committee clinical and prescribing lead, said: ‘Clearer labelling around what medicines contain, and explicit warnings about the risks of addiction are a step in the right direction.
‘The BMA has for a long time been clear on the threat that the dependence on prescription drugs – including opioids – poses to the health and wellbeing of people in Britain. We are therefore glad that the Government is finally starting to listen to organisations like ourselves and introducing measures to tackle the issue.’
He added: ‘Over recent years the BMA has put forward a number of tangible recommendations that would reduce the harm caused by prescription drug dependence, including the creation of a dedicated national helpline and an increase in the provision of specialist support services for those who find themselves in the grip of dependence.
‘We continue to push for these solutions as part of the ongoing Public Health England review and hope they will be taken forward when it reports later in the year.’
It follows a major review of opioid medicines which launched in February this year by the Government medicines regulator, with the aim of cutting overprescribing and drug misuse.
In March, Pulse reported that NICE were developing new guidance for GPs and other health professionals on prescription drug dependence and how to manage withdrawal. The health body said the guidance was to help tackle the problem of opioid-related deaths and growing concerns about dependence on prescription drugs.