- A BBC investigation revealed it is easy to get hold of opioids in the UK
- Pharmacies were found to not be asking buyers proper questions
- The painkillers, including codeine and tramadol, are very strong and addictive
- Around 17,000 people per year now overdose on prescription opioids in the US
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
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.