I just returned from a wonderful trip to the United Kingdom that included both England and Scotland. I’ll post more about those adventures and meeting up with the great Pollyanna Penguin in a later post.
As much as I think the UK and the US are similar, I am simultaneously surprised and delighted by the differences. Some of the things are subtle and you don’t notice them at first. Eventually I realized that I hadn’t seen a single television commercial for any prescription medications at all. (I am assuming that has a lot to do with nationalized medicine.) Then I realized that I seldom even saw commercials for over-the-counter drugs. But there was one that really caught my eye, and that was for Syndol, which is a pain-relief tablet that contains 8 mg. of codeine. Yes, codeine. That close cousin to hydrocodone that Healthline.com reports is abused more than any other drug in the United States. In 2014, the FDA expanded regulations on codeine products and nearly all require prescriptions today.
To satisfy myself, I went to the local Boots (a popular British pharmacy chain) and purchased a small box of the product. It was about $5 US for 10 tablets. It contains 500 mg. of paracetamol (the UK equivalent of acetaminophen or Tylenol), along with 8 mg. of codeine and 30 mg. of caffeine to help the drug work faster. Interestingly enough, the medication was recently reformulated – not to adjust the codeine levels, but to remove doxylamine. Doxylamine is an antihistamine and a sedative that is readily available in the US in such products as Nyquil and Unisom.
Okay, so codeine is not as strong as hydrocodone, but while it is an effective pain medicine, it is also an addictive opioid. I thought at first that the UK was not as concerned about the war on drugs in general and opioids specifically as the US, but a search of headlines proved that was incorrect. According to BBC, more than 3,300 people died in the UK from drug poisoning in 2014. But of these, the vast majority — two-thirds — (2,248) were from illegal drugs (including heroin and methadone). Of the remaining one-third related to legal and/or prescribed drugs, only 136 were related to codeine. (Tramadol accounted for 248 cases and diazepam, i.e. Valium, was linked to 258.)
I think what strikes me the most is that even with (or perhaps because of) the restrictive national health system in the UK, people who require pain medication are given easy access to not only basic pain medications (such as Tylenol and aspirin) but also more robust medications (including opioids) and the abuse rate from these medications is amazingly low. Syndol is just one example. I also found Voltarol gel over the counter, which is effectively the same as Voltaren gel for which I have to have a prescription in the US.
My point in all this (if there is a point), is that drug regulation needs to not only control drug distribution, but it must play a key role in helping ensure that people who need drugs, including pain medication, have reasonable access to them. Perhaps by looking at other countries’ experience and examples, such as that of our UK allies, we can help achieve that balance.
I hope today is a pain-free day for you. Thanks for checking in.