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Codeine to require a script from 2018

AAP logoAAP 19/12/2016 Belinda Merhab

Ever rushed down to the local chemist to grab cold and flu tablets, or painkillers for a headache?

If that medicine contains codeine it's about to become more expensive and inconvenient to get hold of.

From February 2018, pain-relieving medicines containing codeine will only be available with a prescription, the medicines regulator has decided.

It's expected to affect about 25 medicines that patients now buy over the counter, including painkillers like Nurofen Plus, Codral for cold and flu and Mersyndol for period pain.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration said its decision was based on the evidence of harm caused by overuse and abuse of over-the-counter codeine medicines, which are only available with a prescription in the US, most of Europe, Hong Kong, Japan and the UAE.

It says there's little evidence that codeine-containing medicines are more effective for pain relief than those without.

Public consultations revealed many consumers used the products to self-treat chronic pain, frequently becoming addicted to codeine, despite the fact those medicines weren't intended to treat long-term conditions.

Lesley Brydon, chief executive of not-for-profit advocacy group Pain Australia, says the decision will drive up costs and make life more difficult for people who use painkillers responsibly.

It was no wonder there's a problem with codeine use when the government provided limited funding to help people with chronic pain access alternative therapies, like physiotherapy, she said.

"I've had nearly $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for my advanced arthritis this year alone," she told AAP.

"How many people who are less well-off, who have families, can afford access to care?"

GPs have welcomed the decision, insisting it will save lives.

But pharmacists oppose the move, arguing the cost of drugs will rise because of the red tape involved in dispensing prescription medicines.

Price hikes will vary but could top $7 - the fee the federal government pays pharmacists to dispense subsidised medicines.

A health department spokeswoman said affected pharmaceutical companies could apply to have their medicines listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to limit the cost of the medicine to $38.30 for patients, or $6.20 for concessional patients.

Pharmacy Guild president George Tambassis said the decision would disappoint and annoy the 98 per cent of Australians who used the drugs responsibly and would now pay more for them.

"The decision has purportedly been made to help stamp out abuse of these medicines by some people but in reality this measure will only encourage vulnerable patients to doctor shop and try to find ways around the system," he said.

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