When painkilling drugs featuring codeine were pulled from the shelves of pharmacies across Australia in February 2018, the debate was fierce (as outlined in volume 15 edition 1 of the Anex Bulletin).
“There was this great fear (before the rescheduling),” recalls Monash Addiction Research Centre Associate Professor Suzanne Nielsen.
“It was one of the more controversial decisions I’d seen about rescheduling a drug, given the debate,” says Suzanne.
“A study at the time said most consumers and pharmacists were against it, while GPs were for it. The main concerns were the potential time and expense associated with forced GP visits and a negative impact on pain management.”
The argument the other way was all about community health and safety. Before the rescheduling, evidence suggested roughly 540,000 Australians were using codeine for non-medical reasons, and about 58,000 said they could not stop or cut down on their usage (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016). Some people dependent on high doses were reported to be taking upward of 60 or 100 tablets per day, suffering migraine-like headaches if they stopped.
On 1 February 2018, codeine drugs such as Nurofen Plus® were categorised as Schedule 4, meaning prescription only. It’s still so recent that data on its real-world ramifications has not yet emerged. However, at a recent Talking Point presentation, Suzanne gave a sneak preview of the potential impacts, according to a “first cut” analysis of a Codeine Cohort Survey, pre-and-post-reschedule.
The group is made up of people who regularly used for more than a year with many people using codeine on a daily basis. Of this group 58 per cent considered it would be impossible or difficult to give up the drug.
A first glance at this survey, conducted before the rescheduling, and then one month after, and again five months after, would suggest the effects of the rescheduling have been underwhelming.
Suzanne says the early data suggested that there had not been a meaningful long-term overall spike in subsidised Panadeine Forte® scripts, but among the cohort of people using codeine regularly there was an increase. This was backed by the Pharmacy Guild of Australia which said Government data from February to May showed there had been just over 14 per cent more prescriptions dispensed under the PBS for pain relief medicines containing 30mg of codeine compared to the same period last year.
Suzanne reports there was also very little evidence of the predicted major rise in visits to Emergency Departments by people seeking codeine.
In the survey taken five months after codeine disappeared from pharmacy shelves, Suzanne says the data suggests one-third of the studied group had a small amount of codeine left and those with remaining codeine were mostly using codeine infrequently.
“About three in 10 people using over the counter [codeine] were also using prescription [codeine] before the rescheduling, and that increased to 45 per cent in the month afterwards,” Suzanne says.
“Overall, visits to GPs for codeine appear to still be on average less than one per person per month. We need to look in detail at the data over time to see if people are using other medications or substances.”
Melbourne pharmacist and former national councillor for the Pharmacy Guild of Australia Angelo Pricolo reports that, anecdotally, it would seem that a lot of customers have switched to mixes of paracetamol and ibuprofen that were “much safer” than codeine and a “better analgesic” in terms of less side effects, no drowsiness and not being addictive.
“I think I heard that there was a 30 per cent spike in Maxigesic sales after the rescheduling,” Angelo says. “That’s a good outcome.”
Angelo’s view is that the transition away from over-the-counter codeine had gone “pretty smoothly”.
“The world hasn’t caved in,” he says.
“We’ve lost a bit of the over-the-counter population and nobody is sure where they’ve gone but the vast majority of customers have adapted to the re-scheduling.
“From a harm reduction point of view, it’s a good outcome. But the unfortunate thing is that the vast majority of people using codeine in that smaller dose were doing it responsibly, legitimately and comfortably. They were using that formulation for pain relief and a few of them have been caught up in the greater good.”
Sydney GP and addiction medicine expert Dr Hester Wilson says in the wake of the rescheduling, some patients did present with codeine addiction issues.
“A few people have come in requesting help for their codeine dependence and the majority of them have started on Suboxone, a buprenorphine, have settled and it’s been brilliant.”
Suzanne and Hester both say that codeine dependent clients should be treated using the same broad frameworks as opioid addictions.
“Codeine is a drug that is metabolised in our body and becomes morphine,” Hester says. “So what you’re taking when you take codeine is actually morphine. You treat it just the same as you would with any other opioid.”
Suzanne says it is important those with codeine dependence receive treatment.
“We know from previous research that most people who use codeine have not sought help and perceive drug treatment to be very confronting,” she says. “Stigma plays out in many ways, both with internalised stigma around developing problems with codeine and also as stigma expressed towards other people who use substances. They feel that their codeine use is different to illicit drug use. In many ways stigma acts as a barrier to treatment.”
– Nick Place