Doctors want ban on pharmacists selling syrups containing codeine to curb abuse Doctors have called for cough syrups containing the powerful painkiller codeine to be banned from pharmacies because of rising drug abuse among young people. Hong Kong Medical Association president Choi Kin said the government had no control over the amount of such syrups sold to pharmacies, which made it easy for shops to sell them to youngsters, contributing to rising abuse of the medicine. 'Many people who abuse cough syrups buy them over the counter from pharmacies. It is a government loophole and we are very concerned about it,' said Dr Choi, who with legislator Kwok Ka-ki will meet officials from the Department of Health today to discuss the issue. He said it was all right for doctors to prescribe cough syrup with codeine, which was effective for strong coughs, but 'it produces a lot of problems if you allow pharmacies to sell them'. Dr Choi said he would suggest to the department that it ban sales of codeine syrup in pharmacies or require prescriptions for all sales. Codeine, a cough suppressant that stops diarrhoea and kills pain, is made from the same poppy as heroin. 'Codeine is highly addictive and it is as difficult to quit as heroin,' Dr Choi said. 'But without many symptoms, it is difficult for teachers and parents to discover the problem.' The World Health Organisation controls the supply of codeine and limits the amount produced by countries, including Hong Kong. Pharmacies are allowed to sell cough syrup with less than 0.2 per cent of codeine without prescription, although buyers have to give their identity card numbers. A doctor's prescription is needed for syrups with 0.2 per cent codeine or above. Social workers helping young drug abusers welcomed the suggestion of a ban, and said pharmacies ignored the law and sold syrups with higher concentrations over the counter. According to the Narcotics Division, the number of reported cough medicine abusers increased from 286 in 1999 to 704 last year, with 216 aged below 21. 'Some pharmacies even mix codeine syrup with tranquillisers or Ice,' said David Cheung, supervisor for Caritas Wong Yiu Nam youth drug treatment centre. 'They sell [cough syrup] with more than 10 per cent codeine.' He said some pharmacies in Wan Chai, Mongkok, Yuen Long and Tai Po even had rooms for abusers to take the drugs and that some abusers put the syrup into a Coke bottle as a disguise. But Practising Pharmacists Association of Hong Kong president Billy Chung Wing-ming rejected the suggestion, saying it would allow family doctors to monopolise the market for community health care and limit patients' choice. The Narcotics Division said that as cough medicine containing codeine had a medical use, it would accept the Department of Health's expert advice on how its supply should be controlled.