Taking codeine off pharmacy shelves will only hide the problem of its abuse, says the Consumers Health Forum of Australia.
Moving codeine-containing medicines to prescription only is “a very blunt instrument to address what is a complex issue,” says Jo Root, acting CEO of the CHF.
“Clearly we have a problem of misuse and overuse of codeine, and we need to take action to address this,” Root says.
“However, moving codeine products to prescription-only medicines is not the most effective way to do it.”
The CHF says that consumers want medicines to be affordable and accessible when they need them.
It says that around one in five Australians lives with chronic pain, rising to one in three over the age of 65.
“In addition, there are countless people who will have episodes of severe pain at some time in their lives,” CHF says. “All of these people are looking for safe and appropriate access to effective medicines to deal with the pain.”
OTC codeine products purchased over the counter meet that need, it says.
Root says the move to upschedule codeine will do more to harm these people than curb issues of drug misuse and abuse.
“We believe the majority of users, particularly those using it for ongoing or chronic pain, are using responsibly, and they would be unnecessarily penalised by this move,” she says.
“At a time when we know that one in 10 people do not go to the doctor because of cost, and that many people have difficulty accessing a doctor when they need to, this move would deny many people access to much-needed pain relief.
“We also know that just making codeine products prescription only will not stop misuse as people will still be able to doctor shop and access codeine products that way.”
CHF is urging the Government and regulators to take an approach that addresses the different facets of the problems around codeine.
This strategy could include real-time recording and reporting of purchases to help identify at-risk customers, changes to packaging and labelling to emphasise the risk of addiction, and a properly-resourced community education program involving consumers, clinicians and pharmacists about using codeine and other opioids to effectively manage pain.
“We can’t eliminate the risk of misuse and abuse,” says Root, “but nor can we punish consumers who urgently need medication to manage their pain.”