Background: Paracetamol (acetaminophen) poisoning is the leading cause of acute liver failure in Great Britain and the United States. Successful interventions to reduced harm from paracetamol poisoning are needed. To achieve this, the government of the United Kingdom introduced legislation in 1998 limiting the pack size of paracetamol sold in shops. Several studies have reported recent decreases in fatal poisonings involving paracetamol. We use interrupted time-series analysis to evaluate whether the recent fall in the number of paracetamol deaths is different to trends in fatal poisoning involving aspirin, paracetamol compounds, antidepressants, or nondrug poisoning suicide.
Methods and findings: We calculated directly age-standardised mortality rates for paracetamol poisoning in England and Wales from 1993 to 2004. We used an ordinary least-squares regression model divided into pre- and postintervention segments at 1999. The model included a term for autocorrelation within the time series. We tested for changes in the level and slope between the pre- and postintervention segments. To assess whether observed changes in the time series were unique to paracetamol, we compared against poisoning deaths involving compound paracetamol (not covered by the regulations), aspirin, antidepressants, and nonpoisoning suicide deaths. We did this comparison by calculating a ratio of each comparison series with paracetamol and applying a segmented regression model to the ratios. No change in the ratio level or slope indicated no difference compared to the control series. There were about 2,200 deaths involving paracetamol. The age-standardised mortality rate rose from 8.1 per million in 1993 to 8.8 per million in 1997, subsequently falling to about 5.3 per million in 2004. After the regulations were introduced, deaths dropped by 2.69 per million (p = 0.003). Trends in the age-standardised mortality rate for paracetamol compounds, aspirin, and antidepressants were broadly similar to paracetamol, increasing until 1997 and then declining. Nondrug poisoning suicide also declined during the study period, but was highest in 1993. The segmented regression models showed that the age-standardised mortality rate for compound paracetamol dropped less after the regulations (p = 0.012) but declined more rapidly afterward (p = 0.031). However, age-standardised rates for aspirin and antidepressants fell in a similar way to paracetamol after the regulations. Nondrug poisoning suicide declined at a similar rate to paracetamol after the regulations were introduced.
Conclusions: Introduction of regulations to limit availability of paracetamol coincided with a decrease in paracetamol-poisoning mortality. However, fatal poisoning involving aspirin, antidepressants, and to a lesser degree, paracetamol compounds, also showed similar trends. This raises the question whether the decline in paracetamol deaths was due to the regulations or was part of a wider trend in decreasing drug-poisoning mortality. We found little evidence to support the hypothesis that the 1998 regulations limiting pack size resulted in a greater reduction in poisoning deaths involving paracetamol than occurred for other drugs or nondrug poisoning suicide.