Co-codamol pain-killer use in Northern Ireland reaches 100 million tablets a year

A woman receiving her prescription medicine from a pharmacist in Northern Ireland.
A woman receiving her prescription medicine from a pharmacist in Northern Ireland.

The number of co-codamol pain-killers prescribed in Northern Ireland has reached 100 million a year as fears over widespread abuse increase.

That figure is more than double the 49 million of the popular tablets dispensed in 2005, and the number of prescriptions for other frequently abused medications has also spiralled.

Around 21 million Amitriptyline anti-depressant tablets were prescribed by doctors in the Province in 2015 compared to seven million in 2005, while a total of 34 million of the Citalopram and Sertraline anti-depressants were dispensed compared to fewer than four million ten years ago.

There have been numerous reports of prescription recipients selling strips of tablets to drug abusers for between £2 and £10.

On top of the millions of medically dispensed tablets in circulation – and the unknown quantity of legitimate drugs being bought online – PSNI figures show that 10,000 fake diazepam tablets are shipped into Northern Ireland every week.

Last year, the tramadol drug alone was linked to 33 deaths in Northern Ireland, leading state pathologist Jack Crane to issue a warning.

Although the pain-killer is safe if taken correctly, the danger increases when users mix it with other alcohol or other drugs.

“I don’t think that people realise how potentially risky taking tramadol is. I think it’s because it’s a prescription drug – people assume it’s safe,” Prof Crane told UTV.

People abusing medicines often mix them, or take dangerously high doses, to experience intoxication, euphoria, sedation or increased energy levels.

Earlier this year, a heartbroken mother appealed for young people not to abuse prescription medication after the death of her 19-year-old son.

Aaron Strong died after taking a cocktail of tramadol, diazepam and lyrica with alcohol before falling into a coma.

Ann-Marie Strong told the BBC he son was in a coma for six days before they decided to switch off life support.

“My heart was broken watching him in intensive care,” Mrs Strong said.

As far back as 2011 the Pharmaceutical Journal called the growth in demand for the tramadol drug in Northern Ireland “truly staggering”.

The industry publication reported that in the 10 years up to 2010, the number of prescriptions had shot up from 82,357 to 233,665 (16 million tablets).

By last year the number of tramadol prescriptions in the Province had dropped to 175,655 (12 million tablets) due to raised awareness of the dangers.

The Pharmaceutical Journal article (September 2011) based on the Northern Ireland statistics stated: “The numbers are truly staggering. Are more people getting addicted to tramadol? Are GPs struggling in practice and giving in to the demands of patients who have heard that tramadol is a very strong pain reliever? Does the patient really need tramadol? Has co-codamol stopped working?”

The decline in popularity of Prozac anti-depressant accounts for only a small percentage of the increase in more modern alternatives.

Traditionally the US was recognised as one of the countries worst affected by prescription drug abuse, but the rise across the UK is causing increasing concern.

A recent study published in the journal BMC Psychiatry found that almost one in 10 British people (aged 18 or older) admitted to habitual, long-term stimulant abuse – compared to Spain (6.8%) and Sweden (6.1).

Belfast GP ponders if Northern Ireland is suffering an “epidemic” of pain and depression