The number of prescriptions dispensed by the National Health Service in England has hit the one billion mark for the first time, but the cost of medicines to the Service is falling, new data show.

During last year, 1,000,502,400 prescriptions were handed out by the NHS in the country, marking a rise of 4.6% over 2011, according to figures from the Health & Social Care Information Centre.

However, the net ingredient cost of these to the NHS slipped 3.4% to £8.52 billion, which may largely be down to increased use of generics.

By therapy area, the health service spent nearly £1.78 billion on medicines for the central nervous system, £1.14 billion on cardiovascular drugs, and £1.09 billion on respiratory treatments.

With regard to individual medicines, the top 10 drugs by volume in 2012 reportedly remained unchanged from last year, with cholesterol buster simvastatin leading the pack with 42.6 million items dispensed, followed by Aspirin (31.4 million items) and levothyroxine sodium ( 26.7 million items).

The figures also show that over the year the NHS prescribed 21.9 million packs of paracetamol, which has raised a few eyebrows. As one Chemist + Druggist reader and pharmacist commented, "not sure why so much paracetamol is prescribed when it is economical to buy".

According to ABPI chief executive Stephen Whitehead, the figures published by the HSCIC "again demonstrate the excellent value for money that medicines provide to the NHS".

"In the next three years we expect the NHS to make significant savings to the tune of £3.4 billion as the patents on many medicines lose their patent. Coupled with these savings, the UK also has amongst the lowest prices in Europe but there has been a consistent failure in the healthcare system to invest in new medicines, which not only harms patient health but affects companies’ ability to invest in the hugely risky and expensive process of researching and developing medicines,” he said, in a statement to PharmaTimes UK News.

In 2011, a total of 961,500,000 prescription items were dispensed, marking a rise of 3.8% over 2010, while the ingredient cost of was £8.8 billion, slipping 0.3% on 2010.