What the new codeine ban means for your health

Late last year, the government announced pharmacists would be banned from selling over-the-counter codeine medication to people without a prescription. Thursday marks the first day that popular pain-relief medication such as Codral, Mersyndol, Panadeine and Nurofen Plus will be unavailable unless people have a note from the doctor.

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In addition to pain medication, the ban will also see a number of popular cold and cough medicines that contain codeine removed from public sale without a prescription.

It’s sparked mass panic with many people stocking up on the medication before the strict new laws come into place. The announcement was first made in October and now means that Australia will be in line most European countries and America that have already enforced the strict laws in response to opioid abuse.

ABS data shows that prescription drug abuse has increased significantly in Australia in recent decades, with hundreds of opioid-induced deaths each year.

Speaking on a recent episode of Sunrise, Professor Les Sheffield said the government was particularly worried about addiction and the side effects of the drugs. “People do abuse codeine, but they also get side effects,” he warned. “And it’s possible to find out whether people get side effects by doing a test to see whether codeine and other medications are suitable for that person.”

Read more: Beat pain the natural way with fish oil, herbs and more

He explained that the test involved patients visiting a pharmacist or doctor to assess how well the drug was working with the body. It’s hoped the new rules will encourage patients to seek alternative forms of pain relief and medication from health professionals that won’t be as damaging or addictive as the current codeine options available. Research has suggested that most over-the-counter codeine options aren’t necessarily the best way to relieve pain and that other medications available may have less dangerous side effects.

The government’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy told SBS there was a misunderstanding that codeine was the only effective way of assisting with pain relief. “The feeling is that these drugs are of little value as painkillers,” he said. “People can get just as much relief from drugs which will remain over the counter.” And while one of the main reasons behind the strict new rules is to curb addiction, Professor Murphy warned that the ban could lead to addicts turning to illegal drugs. Still, the government hopes that a prescription will prompt addicts to face their issues and find treatment.

Reports suggest an additional 8.7 million doctor visits will occur each year as a result of the ban, costing taxpayers an extra $316 million. While the ban is hoped to reduce medication dependence, there are concerns doctors will instead turn to prescribing drugs other than codeine, rather than medication-free alternatives.

Australia is suffering an over-prescribing epidemic, with data confirming last year that doctors are prescribing antibiotics up to nine times more than the recommended rate.

Anyone concerned their medication will be impacted by the changes to codeine drugs are encouraged to talk to their pharmacist. More often than not, they’re going to be able to offer alternatives that are still available over-the-counter if the existing medication you take is affected by the ban. Also be sure to make them aware if you have any heart, kidney, liver or other major organ problems, as a dramatic change in medication may impact those conditions.