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04 Oct 2019

Codeine overdoses in Australia have more than halved since the Government banned over-the-counter sales of the painkiller early last year.

The rescheduling of codeine to prescription-only from February 2018 was fiercely resisted by the pharmacy sector, but firmly supported by the AMA as a wise and much-needed move.

The AMA’s advocacy on the issue has proved right and the Government has been vindicated for its strong decision.

The first peer-reviewed study into the effect of the rescheduling has revealed that the monthly rate of codeine overdose has more than halved since patients have been required to get a doctor’s prescription for the drug.

University of NSW analysis of NSW Poisons Information Centre data shows the sale of codeine painkillers has halved in the 18-months since the rescheduling, and so too has the number of overdoses.

The monthly rate of codeine overdose calls related to low-strength codeine has more than halved since the law changed.

The AMA has welcomed the news, saying the move to reschedule codeine was the right decision for the health of Australians.

Chair of the AMA Council of General Practice, Dr Richard Kidd, said it was a “huge relief” to see the fall in codeine overdoses.

“We had had years of coroners all along the eastern border of Australia, and the western, expressing grave concerns about the numbers of people who were dying from overdoses of codeine-containing compounds, and that these were, at that time, available over the counter,” Dr Kidd told ABC News.

“And so, the coroners raised the alarm. Groups like the AMA, ScriptWise, NPS, TGA, worked together to try and come up with a solution, which was up-scheduling anything that contains codeine.”

Dr Kidd said the addiction rate was nearing that recorded in the United States, and something had to be done about it.

“We’re very, very close to the US in a per capita sense, and much higher than just about anywhere else in the world,” he said.

“And the problem with the codeine-containing compounds is that it was an insidious kind of entry into addiction without people even knowing it was happening. They were buying it over the counter and they didn’t realise that the codeine was giving them a bit of a hit.

“And they were thinking that they were getting headaches or other pains and the codeine-containing compounds were helping, not knowing that as the codeine withdraws, it actually gives you a headache and can give you other pain.

“They were taking more and more of it and then getting poisoned by, quite often, the other thing that was in it, whether it was paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory. So, people were destroying their livers, their kidneys, their stomachs.

“It’s a great relief to see that there’s been a dramatic reduction in the number of overdose calls being made to the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre.

“They reported over a 79 per cent reduction in the calls about overdoses with weaker codeine-containing compounds and half for the slightly stronger ones. So, it’s a big change. And a lot of people have not had preventable deaths or preventable terrible injuries to their organs.

“As a GP who tries to provide quality care, I’d argue that it’s not too expensive to go to a GP. Access in Australia is very good. I think less than six per cent of Australians have reported not going to a GP because of cost. And in a lot of places, they have got the options of bulk-billing doctors if they want to do that.”

CHRIS JOHNSON


Published: 04 Oct 2019