All opioid medications in the UK will now carry prominent label warnings of addiction, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
The move was prompted by new data showing a 60% increase in opioid prescriptions in England and Wales over the last decade. The number of prescriptions for opioids increased from 14 million in 2008 to 23 million in 2018.
The Department of Health (DoH) said that while opioids can be highly effective for managing severe pain, they can also be highly addictive. According to the DoH, some opioids, like codeine-based painkillers, are also available over the counter. While weaker in strength, these medications can also be addictive.
Codeine-related deaths in England and Wales has more than doubled between 2008 and 2018.
Hancock warned that while opioid addiction isn’t as bad as in the United States, steps must be taken to protect people from the “darker side of painkillers.” The aim, he said, is to ensure that these medications are only used for pain management and to ensure that people are aware of the risks.
Higher doses of opioids can slow heart rate and breathing, which can lead to death. The pleasurable feelings that are a result of the opioids contribute to the psychological dependence on the drug. Experts warn that opioids should only be used until the pain starts to alleviate, and then switch over to an over-the-counter medication that does not carry a risk of addiction over the long-term.
Public Health England is already investigating the issue of prescription medication addiction. A report is due later this year.
Under the government’s plans, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will have the authority to require opioid medications to carry warning labels. The wording on the labels will be based on guidance from the Commission on Human Medicines’ opioid expert working group.