By Richard Vadon
Series Producer, The Investigation
Statins are now very widely used by the NHS
Government plans to extend health screening could see an extra 4 million people taking cholesterol-lowering statins, the BBC has discovered.
Everyone in England aged 40 to 74 will be offered checks for heart disease - with statins a treatment option.
The drugs are already the biggest single item in the NHS drugs budget, costing around £500m a year.
The new policy could cost billions of pounds in the long term - but critics say it may have little health impact.
They say the vast majority of people taking statins will not derive any benefit, and that prevention takes resources away from the sick and may end up costing more.
At present, three million people in England take statins.
The drugs - the most commercially successful ever made - are very effective at reducing cholesterol levels, one of the key risk factors for heart disease.
Professor Roger Boyle, the government's National Director for Heart Disease in England, told the Investigation on Radio 4 the plan to offer mass screening would radically alter the amount of people taking them.
He said: "The number could at least double from roughly 3 million at the moment taking statin drugs to certainly 6 or 7 million people."
The vast majority of these new patients will not have a history of heart disease and will be taking statins as primary prevention to avoid heart attacks.
But Professor Boyle admitted to the programme that clinical studies have shown 99% of this group will gain no benefit from taking the drug.
However, he said the policy would still mean tens of thousands of people would avoid heart disease.
Dr Peter Trewby, a consultant physician at Darlington Hospital who has studied how willing patients are to take preventative medicines like statins, believes we are already prescribing too many statins.
He said: "We are turning healthy people into patients, we are medicalising people and making them worry about their health unnecessarily.
"I would take a statin if I had a heart attack but I certainly wouldn't take on otherwise."
Many GPs have told The Investigation they feel that they are being pressurised to prescribe statins to patients some of whom have almost no chance of benefiting.
Dr Stephen Fox, a GP from Leigh in Lancashire became so worried by the level of side effects he was seeing in his elderly patients that he is asked the NHS if there was any research evidence on statins and the over-75s.
He was told there was none.
He said "At some point you have to ask where is the line going to be drawn - does absolutely everybody have to be on these?"
The Investigation on Thursday night at 8pm Radio 4.