Each person in Wales now receives 19.1 prescription items per year, the highest number in the UK, and the number of items dispensed in Wales rose 5% to 62 million in 2007-8 from 59.1 million in 2006-7, according to the latest National Statistics on GP prescribing.

Opposition politicians claim these figures confirm that the Assembly Government’s abolition of prescription charges in April 2007 has been a disastrous waste of money, and that people are claiming items on prescription that they could purchase cheaply over the counter.

In 2003-4, when prescription changes in Wales stood at £6.00 per item, 51.2 million items were prescribed. In the following year, when the charge dropped to £5.00, the total was 53.9 million and in 2006-7, when it fell again to £3.00, 59.1 million items were dispensed.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats’ health spokeswoman, Jenny Randerson, said that the real financial damage caused by the charge’s abolition would not be revealed for several years, but she feared it will show that “a large amount of money that could have been spent on frontline care will have simply been poured down the drain.” This was particularly disastrous when the Assembly Government “is refusing to fund vital lifesaving drugs,” she added.

The rise in the number of prescriptions issued per person over the last 10 years far exceeds the rise in population, and the Welsh are becoming increasingly reliant on prescribed medicine, said Conservative (Shadow) Health Minister Jonathan Morgan, who called on the Assembly Government to “do more to tackle public health problems and focus on issues such as lifestyle, obesity, coronary heart disease and diabetes.”

However, representatives of doctors’ and pharmacy groups have dismissed the politicians’ claims that the free prescription system is being exploited. Last year’s 5% increase is not unusual, and reflects the needs of an aging society, they said.

Dr Tony Jewell, the chief medical officer for Wales, also pointed out that there are more people with long-term illnesses in Wales than in England, and the data reflect the fact that more preventative work is being done. General practitioners (GPs) are “prescribing medicines which are helping people manage their chronic conditions and keeping them out of hospital, reducing the cost and pressure on the National Health Service (NHS),” he said.

For example, the figures show an increase in prescriptions dispensed for cardiovascular disease, in line with National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance on statins, and which is helping to reduce Wales’ historically high rate of heart disease, said Dr Jewell.

“We are also issuing more medicines used to treat cancers, as cancer therapy has improved to a point where, for a number of patients, it is now a chronic condition, plus GPs are helping more patients with diabetes manage their condition under the new enhanced contract,” he added.

- The net cost of prescription items in Wales rose 1% during 2007-8 to £584 million - although per prescription item it fell from £9.80 to £9.42 - and was equivalent to £188.90 per head, the Statistics also show.