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UK could face an opioid addiction crisis like the US’s within just five years, expert warns


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The UK could be in the grip of a deadly painkiller addiction crisis in the next five years, a doctor has warned.

Opioids, which include codeine, morphine and tramadol, should only be available on prescription in Britain but investigators have managed to buy them with ease over-the-counter.

Pharmacies are not being hard enough on people trying to buy the drugs and they are too easy to get hold of online and even in high street pharmacies, experts say.

In a BBC documentary investigation, one man managed to buy eight boxes of codeine – totaling 240 pills – in just 45 minutes from seven pharmacies in London. 

Now the UK faces going down a similar route to the US where a crisis of prescription drug addiction has led to some 17,000 people dying by overdose each year in recent years.

Dr Michael Mosley (pictured) managed to buy eight boxes of codeine from high street pharmacies in south London without a prescription. Just two of the seven pharmacies he visited asked him the questions pharmacists are supposed to ask before giving out the drugs

Dr Nicholas Browne, a GP in Salford, Greater Manchester, told the BBC he thinks a similar thing could happen within the next five years.

‘It is something that’s very much on my mind and very much of a concern or worry,’ Dr Browne told investigator Dr Michael Mosley, a qualified doctor and a journalist.

He was interviewed for the upcoming BBC Two documentary Addicted To Painkillers? Britain’s Opioid Crisis, which airs this Thursday, January 16, at 9pm.

‘We are already seeing signs that that’s happening,’ Dr Browne said. ‘And I can see very easily slipping into that over the medium term, the next five years, that we will start seeing progressively increasing accidental overdose rate.’  

Prescriptions have more than doubled in 20 years and, in 2017-18, 5.6million adults (one in eight) in England were prescribed an opioid, according to Public Health England (PHE).

Numbers of opioid overdose deaths have soared since OxyContin hit the market in 1996, from just 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, official figures show

Numbers of opioid overdose deaths have soared since OxyContin hit the market in 1996, from just 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, official figures show

A report by PHE revealed that more than half a million people prescribed opioids have been taking them continuously for more than three years.

The longer people take the drugs for, the more their body learns to tolerate them and the higher doses they have to take the produce the right effect.

It also becomes harder and harder to stop taking them and, once the body becomes addicted, suddenly stopping them can have deadly effects.

In 2017-18 the NHS spent almost £240million on opioid painkiller prescriptions.

Of this, £12million was spent on prescriptions for codeine, almost £27million on tramadol, £47million on fentanyl and more than £50million on oxycodone.

WHAT IS THE US OPIOID EPIDEMIC?

The opioid crisis in the US has been caused by soaring numbers of prescriptions for the powerful painkillers.

Prescriptions for them are popular because they’re effective, well-tolerated painkillers. 

But as people build up tolerance to the drugs they run the risk of taking too much.

In 2017 and 2018, opioids were involved in more than 47,000 deaths, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – overdoses directly caused around 17,000 deaths in each of those years.

In 1999, by comparison, there were fewer than 4,000 opioid overdose deaths.

Many overdoses are caused by the drug fentanyl, which is dozens of times stronger than morphine and can take users by surprise.

As people spend longer taking opioids, which they may have originally been prescribed after an injury or operation, their tolerance gets higher and they have to take more to have the same effect.

This can cause people to ultimately take too much and kill themselves or to try switching to a more powerful drug and overestimating how much they should take.

One brand, OxyContin, which is a drug called oxycodone, has been blamed for many of these deaths by critics who claim it ran an aggressive marketing campaign in the 1990s which drove prescriptions up.

Its producer, Purdue Pharma, owned by the billionaire Sackler family, is facing more than 2,000 lawsuits for which it has offered to pay out up to $12billion (£9bn).

Purdue filed for bankruptcy in September in a bid to help it pay out in the gigantic court battle. 

It also spent almost £32million prescribing drugs to treat people who were addicted to the painkillers – more than 3.1million prescriptions were made in that category.

In the US, opioids – in particular fentanyl, which can be dozens of times stronger than morphine, and oxycodone – have caused a surge in overdose deaths in recent years.

The number of people dying from prescription drug overdoses soared from just 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One brand, OxyContin, which is a drug called oxycodone, has been blamed for many of these deaths by critics who claim it ran an aggressive marketing campaign in the 1990s which drove prescriptions up. 

Its producer, Purdue Pharma, owned by the billionaire Sackler family, is facing more than 2,000 lawsuits for which it has offered to pay out up to $12billion (£9bn).

Purdue filed for bankruptcy in September in a bid to help it pay out in the gigantic court battle. 

Despite opioids’ strong potential for addiction, Dr Mosley found pharmacists in the UK are handing them out without following proper procedures.

He managed to buy them online using a fake name and also found only two out of seven London pharmacies he visited asked him the required questions about who the patient is, what their symptoms are, how long they have been occurring, what action has been taken and what other medication might be being taken.

He notified the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), which regulates British pharmacies, and got the online pharmacy banned from selling opioids.

However, there are online pharmacies which may have UK addresses but are based abroad, therefore falling outside the GPhC’s remit.

Dr Cathy Stannard, an expert on opioids, told the BBC it was a ‘big unrecognised problem’.

She added: ‘I have seen so few people who are addicted to these medicines.

‘And when I have seen them they are all very high-achieving people in busy jobs with busy lives, coping well, coping well despite their addiction, so (it’s) a masked addiction, high-functioning if you like.’

Professor Helen Stokes Lampard, former chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘(In) years gone by, there weren’t many options and opioids were high on the list of what we were encouraged to use. 

‘If, now, we are part of a system where people are hooked on things, we need to do all we can to help de-prescribe for these patients.’

Dr Mosley’s programme airs on Thursday, January 16, at 9pm on BBC Two.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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