Codeine: ‘I’ve never seen such angry texts’.


angry woman

The OTC codeine ban could save 100 lives a year, the Health Minister says, as ABC journalist reveals consumer fury

And ahead of the upschedule of low-dose codeine products, mainstream media are reporting what pharmacists already know: the remaining S3 packs are “flying off the shelves”.

In an interview with Radio National’s Fran Kelly yesterday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said that the advice of the TGA was that “up to 100 lives a year could be saved from the over-the-counter deaths”.

“We know around the world in many places there is an opioid crisis,” he told Ms Kelly.

“Codeine is part of that family. In other countries such as the United States and the UK, the decision was taken long ago to put these opioids on a prescription basis. 

“Critically, there are many alternatives available over-the-counter, including increased availability of paracetamol-ibuprofen combinations and codeine will still be available for those that require it through prescriptions.

“But it’s a medical decision in line with the rest of the world, taken by the medical authorities for medical reasons.”

Ms Kelly pointed out that there has been considerable opposition to the change, particularly amongst Australians with chronic pain.

“People are furious,” she told the Minister. “I’ve never seen such angry texts to us than on this topic.”

She quoted listener “Mike,” who said that “deaths from drowning are around 300 a year. This dumb regulation will cost millions in extra GP visits and sick leave from headaches that would otherwise be controlled by small amounts of codeine. Some people can’t take aspirin, and paracetamol alone is ineffective”. 

Mr Hunt again cited the figure of 100 deaths a year from over-the-counter codeine: “ the work of the coronial study, showing over 100 deaths a year, just from the over-the-counter situation in Australia. More people lose their lives to codeine related deaths than to heroin”.

This figure has been repeatedly disputed by pharmacy stakeholders.

Meanwhile, newspapers continue to publicise tomorrow’s upschedule, with pharmacists continuing to express concerns about the impact on patients.

The Cairns Post reports that “codeine has been flying off the shelves of pharmacies” ahead of the ban.

It spoke to Pharmacy Guild Queensland branch president Trent Twomey, who called the change a “blunt instrument”.

“What the evidence shows is that two per cent of users are abusers and these people need to be helped,” he said.

“They need to be referred on to proper treatment and pharmacies, general practitioners and the local hospital — they play a role in helping these people.

“The problem is, the 98% of other people that are using (codeine) legitimately and appropriately now have to go through another regulatory hurdle to be able to access that product.”

The Post also spoke to Retail Pharmacy Group managing director Nick Loukas, who said his Cairns pharmacies were low on stock.

The Illawarra Mercury showed pharmacy assistant Margaret Loughrey posing with the last few packets of OTC codeine and quoted Katerina Novarina, president of the Illawarra Pharmacist Association, who said the change was “a bit tough” on responsible codeine users.

She said she felt that real time monitoring of OTC codeine had not been adequately considered.

Guild NSW Branch committee member Adele Tahan spoke to Nine News warning that ibuprofen will not be an alternative due to its unsuitability for patients on blood thinners, with gastrointestinal issues and those with asthma.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone, even doctors, who thinks it’s a good move,” she said of the upschedule.

“The taxpayers are going to be the biggest losers. There’s going to be a spike in Medicare. We shouldn’t be putting obstacles and making it more difficult.”

She said she fears a backlash from customers starting tomorrow.

And Phil Dibben from the Scott-Dibben Chemist told the Newcastle Herald that the pharmacy is out of most brands of low-dose codeine… and that stockpiling may not be as severe as suggested.

“All the media attention has made people pretty scared, and they have been trying to stockpile,” he said.

“Does that just mean an extra packet or two in the cupboard while things settle down and sort themselves out? I suspect that’s more the case than people actually abusing the product.

“I’ve put an extra packet in the cupboard myself.”

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