Paracetamol in smaller packs for safety

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Tighter controls on paracetamol, one of the most popular painkilling drugs in the world, are likely following the launch of a consultation document yesterday on the use of analgesics by the Department of Health.

The availability of smaller packs of paracetamol - six or 12 tablets only - from outlets other than pharmacies, is the predicted outcome of the consultation with drug companies, following a vigorous campaign by some doctors and consumer groups.

Paracetamol, although safe when used at the recommended dose, is responsible for 150 deaths and 30,000 hospital admissions annually following overdose. As few as 20 tablets can cause life-threatening liver disease. Many of those taking it are young and making a cry for help rather than a serious suicide attempt.

In October, Professor Sir David Carter, director of the Liver Transplant Centre at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and the new Scottish Medical Officer, called for an outright ban on the drug. He said paracetamol was the commonest cause of acute liver failure and responsible for one in 10 of the transplants he carried out.

Gerald Malone, junior health minister, admitted yesterday that "with paracetamol the symptoms of overdose might not be readily apparent. This creates a risk that people might delay seeking medical help. The way forward is to ensure that full and accurate information reaches consumers ... in a pack whose size meets their needs without leaving large numbers in the bathroom cabinet."

The National Pharmaceutical Association, which represents 10,000 community pharmacists, has welcomed the move. Pharmacists have long-opposed the ready availability of paracetamol from non-pharmacy outlets such as convenience stores, grocer shops and garages.

Paul Flynn, the Labour MP who has been campaigning for tighter restrictions on the drug, said that paracetamol killed twice as many people as heroin.

"One health minister told me that annual deaths had gone down from 65 to 48. Later he confessed that the true figures were 568 to 453. The Government has wilfully neglected the dangers," he said.

David Dickinson, editor of the Consumers' Association magazine Health Which? said: "We're delighted that the dangers of paracetamol overdose are to be acted on....the plain fact is that paracetamol is named as the cause of more deaths than almost any other drug - 220 people a year in England and Wales alone."

The Paracetamol Information Centre, which represents 10 of the largest manufacturers of the drug, said its member companies were concerned about the continuing use of paracetamol in deliberate self-poisoning and suicide. A spokesman added: "It is most important to note that paracetamol has a remarkable safety record in normal use and that the 30 million customers who use paracetamol products according to the directions on the pack need have no fears of overdosing."