A government study has highlighted Hongkongers' dependence on painkillers, with researchers warning that many users may not be aware of the risks of taking such drugs.
One researcher described the use of analgesic drugs such as aspirin as serious, based on the survey results.
Dr Lam Ming, consultant at the alcohol and drug dependence unit at Castle Peak Hospital in Tuen Mun, urged the government to raise awareness of the risks of overusing common drugs, saying such education was scant at present.
'Slight dependence on a drug may not be easy to identify,' Lam said yesterday. 'When in doubt, you should consult a family doctor to assess whether you have a medical need to take the amount of drugs you're taking.'
The survey, conducted by the Hospital Authority, Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong, is the first of its kind in the city and part of a wider study into the state of Hongkongers' mental health. Researchers have interviewed 2,500 people over the past two years.
Of those surveyed, 66 per cent said they had used painkillers at least once in the past year, while 2.7 per cent admitted dependence on them. Their symptoms included failure to take less of the drug or usage every day for two weeks in a row.
Lam said the findings showed an unexpected and serious problem in painkiller dependence. 'People may not be aware that these common drugs carry potential risks,' he said.
Overusing painkillers - taking more than eight pills a day - could cause liver trouble. In some cases, the habit might be linked to psychiatric problems, Lam said.
He cited a patient who took six types of painkillers - totalling roughly 20 pills - a day for about three years. She had no major health issues but began feeling parts of her body were aching. She was having stomach aches because of the many pills she was consuming, and then took more to relieve the pain.
She eventually had to be admitted to hospital to break her dependence.
The survey also found 33 per cent of the interviewees had taken cough medicine over the past year. Only two people, or 0.08 per cent, showed dependence on the drug, which Lam felt was underreported.
The study showed 5 per cent had taken sleeping pills in the past year, with 0.8 per cent admitting dependence on the drug.
'Taking too many sleeping pills may affect one's memory,' Lam said. He had come across patients who forgot to pay at the cashier's counter before leaving a supermarket as a result of memory loss from overuse of the drug.
The survey also found 15 per cent of the respondents displayed emotional disorders, but only about one in four sought professional help.
The study is part of the Hong Kong Mental Morbidity Survey, which started in 2010 and runs until next year, and is funded by the Food and Health Bureau.
Proportion of those surveyed who admitted taking painkillers over the past year. •2.7 per cent said they were dependent