New restrictions on laxative sales introduced to stop misuse

The Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has taken measures to reduce abuse of stimulant laxatives, announcing new rules for sales in supermarkets and pharmacies. It comes after a review into the safety of these medicines by the Commission on Human Medicines.

While previously the constipation medicine was available in large quantities, it will now be sold in smaller packets of 20 standard-strength tablets or 10 maximum strength. They will also carry warnings about never using them for weight control.

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People will also need to prove that they are 18 or over to purchase them, though parents and carers will be able to buy stimulant laxatives for use on behalf of a child.

The measures are to reflect the fact that the medicines should only be used short-term and due to the links between overuse and eating disorders.

Dr Sarah Branch, from the MHRA explains "Stimulant laxatives can provide short-term relief to some people with occasional constipation.

"And most people use these medicines safely. However, there is evidence of misuse by people with eating disorders, and of long-term use by the elderly, as well as inappropriate use in children”.

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In a survey conducted in 2014, eating disorder charity Beat found that nearly all sufferers who abused laxatives had bought them over the counter, with 66.7 per cent saying they had developed a dependency on them.

Beat's Head of Communications, Rebecca Willgress told The Independent that she welcomes the new tighter controls and increased warnings against overuse. “Laxatives can prove attractive for people affected by eating disorders, but also have the potential to cause serious health problems", Willgress explains.

“We hope that these new regulations will make it more difficult for people who are unwell to obtain laxatives, as well as help to educate the wider public on the dangers of abusing them."

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While laxatives are safe when used as advised, overuse can cause symptoms such as diarrhoea, and dehydration, as well as imbalances that can lead to kidney failure.

"We believe these new measures are necessary to address the risks associated with misuse, while continuing to allow safe and appropriate access to these medicines without prescription to treat short-term constipation”, adds Dr Branch.

Larger packets of the medication will still be available to buy under the supervision of a pharmacist when needed.

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If you are affected by an eating disorder and need help or support, you can contact the Beat Adult Helpline on 0808 801 0677.