As Many as 900,000 Brits Could Be Abusing Over-The-Counter Medications With Codeine

By McCarton Ackerman 07/17/15

Codeine-based medicines can produce cravings similar to heroin.

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It’s not just prescription narcotics that are posing an addiction crisis. A new investigative report from across the pond found that as many as 900,000 Brits could be misusing over-the-counter medications that contain codeine.

The report from ITV show, Tonight, surveyed 2,000 people about their over-the-counter codeine use and learned that 75% of the participants had used these medications. Among the group who used them, half admitted to taking a codeine medication for at least three days in a row and 6% said they had taken them for more than a year. One-third of them said they were unaware that the medicines could potentially be addictive.

If used for longer than the recommended three days, codeine-based medicines can produce cravings and a psychological desire to use them that’s similar to heroin.

Despite this, it’s easy to buy these medicines in bulk in the U.K. Tonight reporter Fiona Foster purchased 576 worth of tablets in a matter of hours between 10 websites and 10 pharmacies near her house. Only one of the pharmacists expressed the potential risk for addiction while three asked no questions.

The program spoke with an addict named Chris, who is currently enrolled at the Burton Addiction Centre after becoming addicted to over-the-counter codeine medication. His general practitioner prescribed him codeine for a back problem, but he ended up taking as many as 64 tablets a day at the height of his addiction.

“I ended up having to go and have endoscopies and had major stomach problems, but I was addicted to the codeine. It was the only way I could get it,” he admitted. Chris even said that the severe impact of the paracetamol and ibuprofen on his health meant he would have better off taking heroin.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) addressed the show’s exposé by stating that guidelines were implemented throughout the U.K. in 2009 to “safeguard against inappropriate use” of medications while still remaining “available for sale in pharmacies” for the vast majority who use them appropriately.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.