Aspirin could save your life

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The Independent Online
Aspirin and alcohol are not, when you think about it, so very different. Both are drugs; both can be bought over counters; both, if taken in small amounts, over long periods, will reduce the risk of heart disease; and both are best avoided during pregnancy.

So why will the Government put up a minister to laud alcohol when new research suggests increased use will bring "significant health benefits", yet do nothing about aspirin when scientists find it might cure a common cancer? Might it have anything to do with one very big difference? Which is that every year the Government receives billions of pounds in taxes on the sale of alcohol - and precisely nothing from the sale of aspirin.

Last week, scientists in Bristol working for the Cancer Research Campaign announced that aspirin can destroy bowel cancer cells - a significant advance on a 1994 study which found that consistent use could prevent the cancer developing.

But don't expect the Department of Health to kick off a publicity campaign for aspirin to match that for alcohol last December, when Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, was wheeled out to praise the benefits of moderate drinking.

Alcohol's only clear health benefit is that a single unit (equivalent to a small glass of wine) a day appears to reduce the risk of heart disease. Aspirin can do far more.

Studies over the past 30 years have shown that the correct dose - usually about half a tablet a day - can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (including heart attacks), strokes, four types of intestinal cancer, breast cancer, and possibly senile dementia.

But a spokesman for the Department of Health, asked if it would contemplate an advertising campaign to promote aspirin's benefits, said: "In the case of medicines and drugs, it's up to the clinicians to prescribe them. Our advertising budget mostly goes into things like anti-drug abuse, Aids awareness, and diet advice."

In fact, unlike brewers, aspirin manufacturers are banned from advertising many of the benefits of taking their product. "We can say that it's used against headaches and aches, but not for any of the other problems that the new indications from studies show," says the marketing director of one manufacturer. The reason is that the Medicines Control Agency has not accepted the findings of the studies and, until it does so, such advertising is banned.

By contrast, Mr Dorrell's high-profile announcements last December ("drinking up to four units a day ... will not accrue any significant health risk") went against the best advice of the British Medical Association and the royal medical colleges.

It is true, though, that there are risks associated with taking even that small daily dose of aspirin. "You might feel that you couldn't possibly do yourself any harm," says Professor Brian Pentecost, medical director of the British Heart Foundation. "But when the studies on heart disease came out in 1994, we did some careful calculations before making our recommendations.

"It turns out that in taking aspirin regularly there is a small, but real, chance of a haemorrhage in the stomach or brain. The calculations suggest that if you've got no reason to think you will have coronary heart disease, then you stand to lose fractionally more than you gain. It's very small, but it's there."

Indeed, up to 20 per cent of adult asthma sufferers can have severe attacks triggered by aspirin (along with other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen) - sometimes causing breathing to stop. Used during pregnancy, it can cause bleeding in both mother and baby.

And people do die of aspirin overdoses. But the number is far smaller than those who die of liver cirrhosis, or from drunken drivers. And the popularity of aspirin (originally derived from extracts of willow bark - a pain remedy known to the ancient Greeks) continues undimmed. Britons take five tonnes of it every day - mostly, it is thought, to cure headaches brought on by excessive drinking. The two seem to be linked inextricably.