The NHS is spending millions in prescriptions of a drug which is regarded as unsafe and was withdrawn from the UK market over 10 years ago, HSJ has been told.

According NHS Clinical Commissioners the NHS is spending £8.5m per year on the drug co-proxamol, despite the fact that it was formally withdrawn from the UK market in 2005, over safety concerns. Pharmacists are still able to import the drug from elsewhere.

The drug, used as a stronger alternative to paracetamol, is “a dangerous opiate” according to NHS Clinical Commissioners’ co-chair Graham Jackson, and was withdrawn in 2005 after the Commission on Human Medicines- formerly the Committee on Safety of Medicines- revealed that the drug was linked to 300-400 suicides each year.

Licences for products continaing Co-proxamol were subsequently cancelled in 2007 by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority. 

The news comes as NHS England is set to back plans to drive down the estimated £400m which the NHS spends on a series of medicines deemed “low priority”.

As part of the plan, which is being led by NHS Clinical Commissioners, 10 medicines which the NHS spends £128m a year on have been identified as early targets, one of which is co-proxamol.

In an interview with HSJ, Dr Jackson said the drug “kills people” and that it is “clinical indefensible” that some clinicians are still prescribing the product.

Duncan Jenkins, head of medicines management for Dudley CCG, who is also working with NHSCC on their medicines project, said although there are not many patients who are still being prescribed co-proxamol, the drug “is being imported at a very high cost”.

”It’s being imported by pharmacists. If a pharmacist gets that prescription they will try and fulfil it and will have to go through a company that imports it [the drug].”

Talking about why co-proxamol is still being prescribed, Dr Jenkins said: “We think on the whole its patient pressure, [the patient was] taking it in the 80s… and they are unhappy that it has been withdrawn.”

Exclusive: Stevens backs major £400m medicines savings drive