Heart drugs called statins, which have saved tens of thousands of lives, will be sold over the counter without prescription, the Government said yesterday.

Heart drugs called statins, which have saved tens of thousands of lives, will be sold over the counter without prescription, the Government said yesterday.

The cholesterol-lowering drugs are prescribed to 1.8 million people in the UK and are thought to save between 6,000 and 7,000 lives a year. But some doctors think up to eight million people at risk of heart disease could benefit from them.

Yesterday, John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, gave permission for simvastatin (brand name, Zocor) to be made available over the counter in a 10mg dose, after a recommendation from the Committee on Safety of Medicines. Zocor will go on sale in July and is expected to cost £5 a week. The drugs have to be taken for life.

Professor Sir Charles George, medical director of the British Heart Foundation , said: "We are confident it will save lives." But James Kennedy, spokesman on prescribing for the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: "This is the first time a large-scale preventive drug has gone over the counter. It marks the transfer of a significant cost of disease prevention to the patient. Potentially, you could buy a statin in your 20s and stay on it for life. That's a big deal."

NHS spending on statins is estimated at £700m a year, but it is rising rapidly. The Wanless review of future costs on the NHS, published in April 2002, estimated spending would reach £2.1bn by 2010, as more patients were prescribed the drugs.

Pharmacists will ask several questions before handing over the drug but they will not have to perform cholesterol or other blood tests. That meant some people who did not need it could get it and the risk of the drug could outweigh benefits.

Potential side-effects include muscle pains and liver problems, but pharmacists said people buying statins would be warned about symptoms. Present guidelines for doctors say statins should be prescribed only for patients with at least a 15 per cent chance of a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five years.

If enough people bought statins over the counter, the NHS could reduce prescriptions for the drug, with the biggest impact on the poor who are at highest risk of heart disease, Dr Kennedy added.

Coronary heart disease claims more than 110,000 lives a year. The British Heart Foundation says people taking a 10mg daily dose of simvastatin reduce their risk by 27 per cent.

The Consumer's Association said no other country sold statins, and warned that Britons were being used as guinea pigs.

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