- Prescriptions of addictive painkiller oxycodone soared in recent years
- It was prescribed more than a million times in England last year
- Known as ‘hillbilly heroin’ because of abuse in rural areas of the US
- Fears it could see people switch to heroin as it is easier and cheaper to buy
Experts fear Britain could soon be in the grip of a new heroin crisis after figures showed prescriptions of a highly addictive opioid painkiller have soared in recent years.
Oxycodone was prescribed more than a million times in England last year, an increase of 39 per cent since 2010.
The drug is known in the US as ‘hillbilly heroin’ or ‘poor man’s heroin’ because of its abuse in rural areas since the brand was first sold there in 1996.
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Oxycodone was prescribed more than a million times in England last year, a rise of 39 per cent since 2010
2009/2010 – 788,607
2010/2011 – 919,177
2011/2012 – 1.01million
2012/2013 – 1.09million
Oxycodone is a synthetic form of morphine, but is twice as strong, and is usually prescribed to people in the late stages of cancer, after surgery or for chronic pain. Tablets became available in the UK in 2001.
As well as relieving pain, it induces feelings of euphoria, relaxation and helps people sleep.
Experts say people then switch to heroin because it is easier and cheaper to buy.
This could see people turn to the drug, which has declined sharply in use in recent years. Deaths from heroin in England and Wales have fallen sharply, peaking at 981 in 2001 and had fallen to 596 in 2011.
It has been shunned by younger people in favour of cocaine and Ecstasy. Peaches Geldof, who died of a heroin overdoes last April aged 25, was considered unusually young to be using the drug.
But health professionals in the US have blamed the rise of oxycodone prescriptions for greater heroin use and it is feared the same could happen in the UK.
The number of deaths in the US from heroin overdoses went up from 1,779 in 2010 to 3,665 in 2012.
Often addicts use both heroin and oxycodone. The Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died after relapsing into oxycodone and heroin abuse.
Peter Shmulin, the governor of Vermont, blamed the drug – sold as Oxycontin in the US – for creating a ‘crisis’ in his state.
‘What started as an Oxycontin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown in to a full blown heroin crisis.’
The Hollywood actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died after relapsing into oxycodone and heroin abuse
Experts fear people becoming addicted to the drug and then switching to heroin because it is cheaper to buy
The figures were compiled by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think-tank, from Department of Health data.
Rupert Oldham-Reid, a senior researcher, said oxycodone does have legitimate medical use but the sharp rise in prescriptions should be examined closely.
He told the Times: ‘These numbers show a dramatic rise in prescriptions of oxycodone. It is right that we ask why this is happening and what the effects may be.
‘Oxycodone and other prescription drugs play an important medical role, but we have to make sure we don’t over-prescribe and risk facing the problems they now see in America.’
The CSJ is calling for prescription numbers for each GP practice to be made available and for more frequent reviews of repeat prescriptions.
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