No more excuses: Ban Codeine now

altCAP has for more than 15 years now raised the issue of the dangers and harmful effects of codeine in medications and its easy availability over the counter. We trust the Ministry of Health understands this, and its pharmaceutical authorities are well aware of the situation locally.

So, why is it that they are not taking any action? This is despite the concerns raised by CAP as well as by consumers in letters to the newspapers over numerous media reports of seizures of codeine-based cough mixtures illegally brought into the country.

Our surveys continue to show that codeine cough mixtures are very easy to obtain and that this is the drug addicts turn to if they cannot get their fix.

The Ministry of Health owes the public an explanation: What has happened to its pledge, specifically the unit under it, Pihak Berkuasa Kawalan Dadah, to end the sale and manufacture of codeine cough mixtures from June 2003? The Ministry has not responded to our queries on this issue!

Codeine, or O-methylmorphine, is an alkaloid found in the opium poppy and comes under a group of drugs called narcotic pain medicines. It is generally used to treat mild to moderately severe pain. It can be habit-forming and in the developed countries, it is a prescribed, controlled medication.

Codeine is currently the most widely used opiate in the world, and probably the most commonly used drug overall, according to numerous reports from several organisations including the World Health Organisation.

Reports on the dangers of codeine are continuing to emerge and more countries are banning or restricting its use in medications. A recent news report said that experts in Britain are increasingly worried about the use of codeine in medications and are calling for its review.

Some 27 million packs of codeine-containing painkillers are sold over-the-counter in Britain alone each year and the British Government’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has ruled that the risks of codeine-based cough drops and syrups outweigh its benefits, particularly for those under 18 years.

The authority said there is little evidence that codeine in cough mixtures relieves coughs in children and doctors in Britain, where it is estimated that 30,000 people may be addicted to the drug, and those in Canada and Australia are pressuring their governments to impose a total ban on codeine.

What is the true situation for Malaysia? Besides over-the-counter medication, how do the authorities keep track of all the illegal sales of codeine-containing drugs?

Quite shocking to the average Malaysian consumer was a news report in June this year, stating that two primary school teachers were among four people who arrested for distributing codeine in Shah Alam.

The Shah Alam district police headquarters seized eight bottles containing 14.8 litres of cough mixture and 2,200 pills of various types from the four during a raid on a house in Section 5 and police believe the four could be part of a major syndicate.

We see absolutely no reason for the Ministry of Health to remain silent on this matter. We insist that the Ministry carries out public education on the dangers of this drug, systematically and effectively, so that the masses become aware of its dangers.

This must be done together with a total ban on the manufacture and sale of all drugs containing codeine, and improving enforcement to prevent the smuggling of codeine into the country. This is important, since today codeine can also be purchased through the Internet.

Legislation should also come into force to provide more severe punishment for those who bring codeine into the country, sell it or distribute it. Do not give us any more excuses!

Letter to Editor, 26 October 2010