Misuse of opioid analgesics is an emergent global public health concern. Codeine has an identified abuse liability, given its effect and development of tolerance within a short timeframe on regular or excessive use. Estimation and management of misuse of over the counter (OTC) codeine containing products are hampered by widespread and easy availability and the heterogeneous and hidden nature of misuse. Continued debate around availability centre on increasing evidence of misuse, dependence and adverse health effects associated with presence of non-opioid agents (paracetamol, ibuprofen) in combination products, and lack of evidence of a significant clinical analgesic benefit of combining low dose codeine in OTC products. Limited up scheduling that still enables purchase of codeine products without a prescription, and varied measures of pharmacist intervention at point of sale have not succeeded in curtailing therapeutic and non-therapeutic forms of misuse. This commentary broadly discusses the concepts of medication misuse, codeine's potential for misuse and dependence, characteristics of codeine misuse in general, harms from OTC codeine products in particular, 'unique issues' with OTC codeine products, the problems with scheduling solutions and pharmacy based interventions targeting users, along with the supports needed for these interventions. The recent introduction of new OTC combinations of non-opioid agents which provide greater analgesic efficacy than OTC codeine combination analgesics with no risk of opioid dependence provides a satisfactory alternative to these widely misused products.
Keywords: Codeine; Detection; Misuse; Over the counter; Risk reduction.
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