Opioid painkillers should carry prominent warnings on their labels making it clear that they can cause addiction, health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
Mr Hancock said that people must be protected “from the darker side to painkillers” following a 60% increase in prescriptions in a decade.
Health experts have welcomed the announcement, saying that opioids can cause “life-altering and sometimes fatal addictions”.
Doctors gave out 14 million opioid painkillers in 2008, a figure that had increased to 23 million in 2018.
Opioids come from opium and are used by patients to manage severe or chronic pain.
Mr Hancock said: “I have been incredibly concerned by the recent increase in people addicted to opioid drugs.
“Painkillers were a major breakthrough in modern medicine and are hugely important to help people manage pain alongside their busy lives – but they must be treated with caution. We know that too much of any painkiller can damage your health, and some opioids are highly addictive and can ruin lives like an illegal drug.
“Things are not as bad here as in America, but we must act now to protect people from the darker side of painkillers. We need to place a greater focus on making sure that these medicines are used appropriately and for pain management alone, and make sure people are fully aware of the risks.”
Drug companies that benefit from the war on opioid addiction
A ‘really important piece of evidence’ shows how opioids keep Americans out of the workforce
Pharma CEO: ‘This opioid crisis has become a fentanyl crisis’
Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, said: “We know that long-term use of painkillers can lead to life-altering and sometimes fatal addictions – so I am delighted to see measures put in place to raise awareness of the risks of codeine and prescribed drugs.
“It is vital that anyone who is prescribed strong painkillers takes them only as long as they are suffering from serious pain. As soon as the pain starts to alleviate, the drugs have done their job, and it is important to switch to over-the-counter medications which do not carry the same risk of addiction.”
Opioid overdoses have increased and deaths due to the painkillers have risen to five a day in the UK.
US President Donald Trump meanwhile has admitted that his country has a ‘big problem’ with opioid addiction.