Although codeine is a widely used medication, the problems of codeine abuse and dependence have not been well-studied. This study characterized regular codeine users (using at least 3 days per week for 6 months, excluding those using codeine for the treatment of cancer pain) through a self-completed questionnaire. Recruitment through newspaper advertisements resulted in a total of 339 eligible questionnaires. Thirty-seven percent of subjects met DSM-IV criteria for codeine dependence. Dependent subjects (mean age, 40 +/- 10 years) were using an average of 179 (+/-171) mg of codeine per day. Codeine was predominantly used in the form of combination products with acetaminophen. Dependent subjects identified specific problems causally related to their codeine use such as depression (23%), anxiety (21%), and gastrointestinal disturbances (13%). The dependent subjects reported problems with other drugs more than did nondependent users (alcohol, 57% vs. 26%; cannabis, 23% vs. 5%; sedative/hypnotics, 33% vs. 12%; and heroin, 11% vs. 2%, respectively). Most were taking codeine primarily for a chronic pain problem (81%), although the dependent subjects currently found codeine less effective for treating pain than did the nondependent subjects and were more likely to use codeine for pleasurable effects, to relax, or to prevent withdrawal symptoms. This study showed that dependence is associated with the regular use of codeine. Pain is a key issue with these users; however, they are probably not receiving optimal treatment. There is a need to identify individuals experiencing problems with their codeine use and to develop optimal prevention and treatment strategies.