Customers of fast food restaurants could be offered a free statin along with the burger, salt and ketchup, to mitigate the meal's damaging effects on the heart, doctors suggest.

Providing the cholesterol lowering drug with every burger would help combat its artery clogging tendency, they say. The statin would perform a function equivalent to a filter on a cigarette or a seat-belt in a car. People will continue to pursue unhealthy habits but with a slightly reduced risk.

Darrel Francis from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College, London, says in the American Journal of Cardiology that the reduction in risk offered by a statin approximately equals the increase in risk from eating a cheeseburger and a milkshake.

Statins do not work instantly but regular fast food customers who routinely swallowed the pill with their burger would see a cumulative benefit. Trials show a daily statin reduces heart attack risk by 20-70 per cent. Dr Francis said: "Everybody knows that fast food is bad for you, but people continue to eat it because it tastes good.

"It makes sense to make risk-reducing supplements available just as easily as the unhealthy condiments that are provided free of charge. It would cost less than 5p per customer – not much different to a sachet of ketchup.

"When people engage in risky behaviours like driving or smoking, they're encouraged to take measures that minimise their risk, like wearing a seatbelt or choosing cigarettes with filters. Taking a statin is a rational way of lowering some of the risks of eating a fatty meal."

Mike Knapton, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, rejected the suggestion.

"Risk reduction has a place in tobacco addiction. But the risk of eating burgers goes beyond the cholesterol raising effects. It can cause high blood pressure through too much salt, or obesity through eating meals loaded with calories. Adding a statin could do more harm than good by increasing consumption."