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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

Denise Mahoney reports
New regulations have come into force restricting the number of painkillers that can be sold in one packet.

The new rules limit the sale of analgesics such as paracetamol and aspirin in general stores to just sixteen tablets per box.

[ image: Barbara Atkinson:
Barbara Atkinson: "We don't think it's going to work."
Pharmacists will still be able to supply up to 100 tablets in "justifiable cicumstances".

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."

Warning label

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.

David Grieve from Overcount questions whether the drugs should be on sale in gneral stores
"For the person that's contemplating an overdose that is a cry for help - the pseudo-overdose - they may actually be drawn to deliberately choose this product," he said.

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."

Price rises

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%.

[ image: The rules have put extra costs on manufacturers]
The rules have put extra costs on manufacturers
However, Barbara Atkinson rejected criticism that manufacturers and retailers were simply profiteering.

"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.

Barbara Atkinson: "Smaller sized packs are not good value for money"
"And when you are talking about medicines like asprin and paracetamol - which are sold in blister packs which are precautions to make life easier but safer for the consumer - that does drive the price up."

"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."

Public safety

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."

[ image: Aspirin accounts for around 5,000 hospital admissions each year]
Aspirin accounts for around 5,000 hospital admissions each year
The government hopes the new rules will reduce the number of deaths by around 10%.

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.

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