FOUR out of five Scottish pharmacists suspect customers of abusing over-the-counter medicine, a new study has revealed.
And products containing codeine – an opium-based narcotic often taken for its “mind-altering” effects – appear to be the most widely misused.
A team from Aberdeen University questioned 709 of Scotland’s 1,246 registered pharmacists.
The results revealed that 81% of pharmacists suspect abuse of over-the-counter drugs compared with 71% when similar research was conducted in 2006.
Experts say codeine is used in a wider range of products than ever before. The consequences of abuse include devastating liver and kidney damage.
The team from the Centre for Academic Primary Care reported that 89% of Lanarkshire pharmacists suspected abuse, making it the worst in Scotland. Next worst is Tayside at 87%, followed by Fife at 85%.
Glasgow is just under the average at 79% while the figure for Lothian is 78%. Some 71% of Grampian pharmacists reported suspicions about abuse.
Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles had relatively low levels of suspected abuse at 56%.
The study also found that 90% of pharmacists have changed their sales policies as a result of these suspected abusers – refusing sales, questioning patients and offering advice.
Dr Catriona Matheson, senior research fellow at the centre, said that the new trend could be a result of more products on the market containing codeine – an addictive opiate painkiller.
She said: “We were surprised actually, because what’s happened in this survey is that codeine-including products are showing as being really increased in suspected misuse.
“Those people who have these problems tend to have a chronic pain problem and seem to be trying to manage it themselves with codeine.
“It’s either to manage their chronic pain or manage sleep around that. And they then inadvertently escalate their dose and then it gets to a point where it turns out they’re dependent.”
Dr Matheson said they were trying to help pharmacists to counter the trend.
She said: “At the moment they’re trying to not sell the products, or they’re trying to hide them out of sight – the ones they know people are trying to abuse.
“What we’re working with them to do is getting pharmacists to be more proactive in identifying people that need clinical help.”
Over-the-counter drugs – from painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen up to potent sleeping pills and addictive painkillers – can be bought by anyone, without a prescription from a doctor.
In the 2006 study, Nytol sleeping tablets were the drug pharmacists most suspected of being misused.
The drug is now the fourth most abused, according to pharmacists’ suspicions, but number one is co-codamol, which contains codeine. In second place, according to the research, are other “codeine-containing products”. Nurofen Plus, which contains codeine, is in third place.
Other popular brands, some of them directly referred to in the research, that contain codeine include Panadol Ultra, Feminax, Migraleve, Paracodol, Solpadeine Max, Syndol and Codis 500. Most of the products sell for less than £5.
The academics also noted that none of the top ten products reporter in 2014 were stimulants – in a huge change from previous years.