Women are four times more likely than men to seek help for the abuse of codeine-based drugs – including the Nurofen Plus and Solpadeine brands – said the Over-Count Drugs Information Agency (OCDIA).
The worst-affected Scottish areas are Glasgow, the wider Strathclyde region and Aberdeenshire, OCDIA found.
The number of Scottish women who contacted the Dumfries-based voluntary organisation for help in the past 12 months rose by 13 per cent on the year, with the typical profile being housewives, single mothers as well as professionals such as teachers.
In 2013, 267 women approached the group for help, while 301 contacted it this year. The figures for Scottish men were 81 in 2013 and 88 in 2014. The organisation currently assists more than 4,000 people across the UK.
“The ones we have helped are just the tip of the iceberg,” said David Grieve, founder of OCDIA. “We are turning into a nation of high street addicts. You don’t have to go and find a drug dealer, you just have to walk into your local chemist.”
The women are abusing well-known painkillers such as Nurofen Plus and Solpadeine as they contain low doses of codeine mixed with paracetamol or ibuprofen and are designed to provide pain relief for short-term, moderate pain including migraines, toothache or backache.
However, codeine is an opioid similar to, but weaker than, morphine, and works by blocking pain messages to the brain and in the spinal cord. Regular users enjoy the way codeine can soothe anxiety and administer a mild high but frequent, long-term use leads them to develop a tolerance which requires them to increase the dosage to achieve the same effect.
A report prepared this summer by OCDIA for the Welsh Assembly’s Advisory Panel on Substance Misuse found its average client was using between 20-30 tablets of codeine-based painkillers each day.
However, one client had developed such a tolerance that she was taking as many as 60 a day. Taking so many painkillers can be exceedingly dangerous. A former client of OCDIA was the late comedian Mel Smith who went public with his addiction to Nurofen Plus after he became very ill and suffered two perforated stomach ulcers.
Women are more likely to become addicted to over-the-counter painkillers as they are the manufacturer’s target consumers and are more likely to stock the family medicine cabinet. An estimated 2.5 million packs of over-the-counter painkillers containing codeine are sold in Scotland each year, or 10 per cent of the UK figure of 25 million. In 2007 the industry agreed to put a warning on labels stating that codeine can prove addictive and stating that products should only be used for three days, where previously seven days was the recommended maximum.
While pharmacists are instructed not to sell to customers who display suspicious buying patterns, many addicts now buy in bulk from one of the many online pharmacists.
According to David Grieve the people who contact the organisation for assistance come from all professions. “Those we are dealing with are not the stereotypical drug abusers, they are ordinary people like doctors, teachers, nurses, we’ve even got a judge, an orchestra conductor, and people who work in television.”
Grieve said he was recently contacted by a teacher who had become addicted to the painkillers but was fearful she would have to register as an addict in order to be treated.
He said the public have to be more aware of the dangers of over-the-counter painkillers, since they currently believe them to be relatively harmless.
“There is easy access and this is not just the fault of the chemist or the drug manufacturer, the public have to take responsibility as we are living in an information age and people can have no doubt about the things that they take. Yet we still have this philosophy that because its over-the-counter it can’t be addictive.”
A spokeswoman for the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents the manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, said: “The number of people addicted to OTC codeine products in the UK is unknown, however, doctors and researchers are in agreement that it is a relatively small problem.
“There is no evidence to suggest that more people are becoming addicted although media coverage over the past few years may have led to increased awareness of the issue. The number of packs sold over the past few years has slightly reduced.”
Nurofen Plus insisted packs feature clear labelling which states “for three days only” and “can cause addiction”. However, Dr Aomesh Bhatt, director of regulatory and medical affairs for Nurofen Plus, added: “We want to reassure people that codeine-combination medicines continue to be safe when used as directed and we would like to reiterate that care should always be taken when using OTC medicines.
“There is a considerable body of scientific evidence illustrating their safety as long as they are used correctly for short-term relief.
Aileen Bryson, of the Practice and Policy department of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in Scotland, said: “Over-the-counter medicines bring great benefits to people when used as recommended. It is essential they read the instructions carefully and never take more than the stated dose for longer than recommended. Always check with pharmacy staff to make sure the medicines are appropriate for you. If you have taken medication and you are still in pain, you should speak to your pharmacist or GP.”