Wednesday, September 16, 1998 Published at 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Suicide fears limit paracetamol sales
More tablets can be bought in a pharmacy
The new rules limit the sale of analgesics such as paracetamol and aspirin in general stores to just sixteen tablets per box.
The change is aimed at preventing the 200 accidental deaths and suicides which result from the misuse of the drugs each year. But critics claim the regulations - issued by the Medicines Control Agency - will do little to address the problem.
"If someone wants to purchase more than sixteen, all they have to do is to go to several different shops and do just that," said Barbara Atkinson of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, which represents drugs manufacturers.
"So we don't think it is going to work as a restrictive practice."
David Grieve from Overcount - an organisation which specialises in addiction and misuse of over-the-counter medicines - said new labelling which will appear on the packets warning of the risks of taking too many tablets could lead some people to attempt an overdose.
He also questioned the training and supervision of sales staff in supermarkets and garage forecourts, many of whom seemed unaware of the problems and continue to sell several packets in one sale.
"You have to question why drugs, even in quantities of 16, are being sold at places like garages, supermarkets and shops."
Consumer groups have attacked the move because the new packaging means people will have to pay more per tablet. For example, a new 16-pack of Boots-own paracetamol will cost 55p - a price per tablet increase of 91%.
"Packaging costs are a very large part of the price you for any over-the-counter medicine, and unfortunately smaller sized packs are not good value for money," she said.
"A lot of our members have had to invest in new tooling and machinery and they've had to redesign the packs that now have to carry warnings."
When the government announced the changes last year, Health Minister Alan Milburn said: "Analgesics are safe and effective when used at the recommended doses. But, overdoses can have serious consequences. The toll of deaths involving parcetamol overdoses calls for action to improve public safety."
Paracetamol is the most widely used analgesic in the UK with an estimated 30 million packs sold each year.
Campaigners have argued that suicides could be avoided if paracetamol was sold as Co-methiamol - a combination of methionine and paracetamol.
Methionine is the antidote given to overdose patients to reduce the risk of liver damage.
However, the government believes the vast majority of people who take paracetamol in recommended doses would derive no benefit and would be exposed to any risks the antidote might have.