More than 30,000 people in Britain are said to be hooked on drugs that contain opiates and stimulants which can be bought at high street chemists without a prescription.
The typical addict is a woman in her twenties living in London who takes several bottles of cough medicine or large doses of painkillers to cope with everyday stresses.
David Grieve, a former cough-linctus addict, runs Over-Count, a self- help organisation for over-the-counter (OTC) drug addicts. Mr Grieve survived a 10-bottle-a-day addiction to the cold remedy Phensydyl, and now campaigns for greater awareness of the dangers of all OTC drug addictions.
There are no official statistics but Mr Grieve estimates there are 30,000 OTC drug addicts in the UK. "I can buy a dry-cough medicine from my chemist for pounds 3," he said. "Half a bottle contains as much amphetamine as a pounds 20 bag of speed bought from a dealer. But when we buy these products we're not told that. That's why people are getting addicted."
Earlier this year the British Medical Association's landmark report recognising the medicinal benefits of cannabis included a chapter on OTC drug misuse. It concluded that a warning about the addictive qualities of certain OTC drugs, with information that they included opiates, sedatives and hallucinogens, should be displayed on the packaging. The senior medical experts and academics who compiled the report also recommended that more information on OTC drugs should be made available to GPs.
According to Over-Count's annual survey, the most abused OTC brands are the painkillers Solpadeine and Syndol, followed by Feminax, which is used to ease period pains.
London and Scotland top the OTC drug addicts regional league. Indeed, Lanarkshire Health Authority in Scotland recently organised the first UK conference on the problem.
Two-thirds of Over-Count's 6,000 clients are women between the ages of 25 and 45. Mr Grieve believes they are prone to OTC drug addiction because they had to endure monthly period pains for which they sought out accessible remedies. Women got more of a "hit" from the drugs, he said. "Although women are generally smaller and have lower body weights, they're advised to take the same dosage as men. Because of this they end up with a greater proportion of a drug in their system."
Kirsty Roberts' addiction to OTCs was typical. A 30-year-old mother of three from Nottinghamshire, she habitually suffered from chronic back pain. "I was reading a magazine when I saw an advertisement for a new drug called Paramol," she recalled.
"It said it was the strongest painkiller available and that you no longer needed a prescription to buy it. I opted for it, and now I don't have to bother my doctor any more. I assumed that because I did not need a prescription they were safe."
What Ms Roberts did not know was that Paramol contains dihydrocodeine, a morphine derivative. It was declassified as an OTC drug in 1995. "I found that as well as getting rid of my back pain I got a bit of a buzz. That made me feel really good so after a while every time I got the slightest twinge I'd have another tablet. When I ran out or tried to go without the tablets, I would get the shakes, stomach cramps and would sweat profusely."
At the peak of her addiction Ms Roberts was on 24 tablets a day, a potentially lethal dose since Paramol also contains paracetamol, which can cause irreparable liver damage.
After more than two years she decided to quit and sought help from established drug clinics and projects. But they were used only to dealing with heroin and cocaine addicts, and could not help. Eventually a course of tranquillisers from her GP - and her own will-power - enabled her to quit. "People just don't realise what's in these tablets. What is needed is a warning on the packets. People should be better informed," she said.
Regulation of all drugs on the market and decisions over the licensing of new ones are determined by a government-appointed quango, the Committee on the Safety of Medicines (CSM). The majority of CSM members have financial interests in pharmaceutical companies, leading many to question whether it really is a truly independent body.
"In Britain a blanket of confidentiality has been thrown over the problem," said Maurice Frankel, director of the Freedom of Information Campaign. "It means that neither the Department of Health nor the pharmaceutical industry is under any obligation to satisfy consumer groups, expert medical opinion or public pressure."
By contrast, the American public has full access to information on every new drug granted a licence. At the pharmacy counter they can read up on all the clinical studies that have been made on the particular drug they are being offered, and receive a detailed list of all the possible side-effects as part of the packaging.
The Department of Health maintains that strict criteria are adhered to for OTC drugs. An increasing number of prescription drugs have been deregulated to reduce pressure on GPs, and before medicines are declassified they must meet certain strict criteria.
"These include whether or not the product is safe for people to self- administer, and whether it has the potential to be addictive," a Department of Health spokeswoman said. "We have to weigh up the risks that the product carries against the benefits to the large majority of people who use them and in the correct way."Reuse content