Range of drugs on sale to be extended

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The Independent Online
Plans to extend the range of drugs available without prescription were announced by the Government yesterday as part of efforts to control the 'soaring' NHS drugs bill of pounds 3bn.

The decision to declassify more prescription-only medicines to pharmacy-only status is the second major change in NHS drug supply in recent weeks.

Last month, Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, announced that the limited list, which excludes some drugs from NHS prescription in favour of cheaper alternatives, would be extended. She said yesterday that the drugs bill was rising much faster than NHS costs as a whole, and three times as fast as inflation. It was a 'matter for serious concern'.

The announcement had been expected. The Medicines Control Agency unveiled plans in October to speed the deregulation of medicines from prescription-only to pharmacy-only status, making them available over the counter from pharmacies within a year. Pharmaceutical companies were invited to make applications.

The Department of Health was unable to say which prescription drugs would be declassified, but the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain has published a list of 50 drugs that are candidates. They include Zovirax (acyclovir) for herpes infections; Zantac (ranitidine) and Tagamet (cimetidine), both anti-ulcer drugs, and various antibiotic preparations.

Mrs Bottomley told a meeting of the Medical Journalists' Association in London yesterday that many doctors welcome self-medication.

Some critics say that the move will mean serious conditions may go undiagnosed as patients opt for self-medication. Mrs Bottomley said that patient safety would be 'a prime consideration'. David Coleman, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said that the patient counselling by pharmacists would be an essential part of the change.

Mrs Bottomley said that she could not ask NHS staff to accept a 1.5 per cent pay rise, announced in the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, while the drugs bill was growing by 12 per cent. 'There is real scope for savings, freeing resources for services elsewhere.'

The declassification of drugs in Britain has been slow. In 1984, the painkiller ibuprofen was approved as a pharmacy-only medicine after its patent expired. Since then only a handful of other drugs, including hydrocortisone cream and the antibacterial drug clotrimazole, have followed.

The move to make more drugs available over the counter is a world-wide trend, backed by pharmaceutical companies that make prescription drugs. They see it as an opportunity to develop new markets.