Overwhelming evidence now shows that the benefits of statins vastly outweigh the risk of side effects, a group of health experts has claimed. Six professors from British universities yesterday entered the growing debate about the use of statins, the UK’s most prescribed drug. Many GPs and patients are concerned about their over-prescription, which some say will needlessly expose people to side effects such as muscle pain and diabetes. But the group of leading cardiologists and epidemiologists dismissed fears about side effects as misrepresentative and misleading. Professor George Davey Smith, clinical epidemiologist at Bristol University, said ‘the jury is no longer out’ on statins. He said: ‘Trials have shown unequivocally that statins reduce coronary heart disease mortality and there are very low levels of severe side effects. ‘We are not forcing these tablets down people’s throats, we are giving people the evidence on which to make a decision.’ Professor Davey Smith added that a great root of the misunderstanding is that people on statins tend to blame the drug for any minor health problem. He said: ‘Because people have symptoms they look for an explanation and their doctors look for an explanation, and they attribute it to the tablet.’ Their intervention comes just a fortnight before the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is due to publish new guidelines that will radically increase the use of the drug. The medication is currently only available to those at a 20 per cent risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke within the next decade. Some seven million Britons already take the drug. The new guidance will advise GPs to prescribe statins to anyone deemed to have a 10 per cent risk, which is estimated to increase the number on statins by up to ten million. The planned shift to ‘pre-emptive’ prescribing has led some GPs to warn that many people will be given the drugs who do not need them. Dr Kailash Chand, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association, said: ‘Statins are very useful for people at high risk, those who have had a stroke or heart attack. New guidance advises GPs to prescribe statins to anyone with a 10 per cent risk, leading some GPs to warn that people who don't need the drug might be given it. ‘But to prescribe these drugs to those at low risk prompts a real concern we are over-medicalising and over-statinising Britain. ‘Statins definitely have side effects – that is what I have seen after 30 years of prescribing them as a GP. To say otherwise is just not true.’ But Oxford University professor Sir Rory Collins said trials have definitively shown that taking statins over five years increases the risk of side effects by less than 1 per cent.
He added: ‘It isn’t irrelevant to have a heart attack, it is a major life-changing event. ‘For many people a stroke is a life-changing event. To avoid these is important. ‘If one looks at the absolute risk, which is less than 1 per cent, and you look at the absolute benefit, the benefits in those terms outweigh the risk.’