Wales now has the highest number of prescription items dispensed per head of population than anywhere else in the UK, and critics say the government's free-prescriptions policy is no longer sustainable.

During the last financial year, the number of prescription items dispensed in Wales rose 3.3% to 70.1 million, from 67.9 million the year before, and averaged 23.2 for each person in the principality. This compares to 19.9 per head in Northern Ireland, 17.7 in England and 17.6 in Scotland.

The cost of all prescriptions dispensed in Wales also rose last year, by 1% to £594.3 million, equal to £188.50 for every person registered with a GP.

These figures show that the universal free prescriptions policy, introduced in Wales in 2007, "simply cannot be sustained," said Assembly Member (AM) Darren Millar, the Welsh Conservatives' health spokesman.

"Since 1999, the number of items dispensed per head has increased by 61% and the cost of those items has risen by more than £206 million. That fuels serious concern over the Welsh Labour government's use of precious NHS resources," said Mr Millar.

He added: "as millions are spent on pills and ointments that can be bought for pennies in supermarkets, cancer patients are being denied access to over 20 drugs that are routinely available in England."

"Those who can afford to contribute towards their prescriptions should be able to - and the money saved should be used, in part, to create a Cancer Drugs Fund - similar to the one benefitting thousands of patients over the border" in England, said Mr Millar, who represents Clwyd West.

However, sources close to Welsh Health Minister Lesley Griffiths said that the Labour government sees free prescriptions as a long-term investment in improving health and that providing people with the medications they need will help keep people out of hospital and thus reduce the costs to the NHS. The government makes "absolutely no apologies for this," the source added.

Nor does the Welsh government see a need for a separate Cancer Drugs Fund in Wales, the source is reported as saying, pointing out that Wales already spends around £5 more per head of population than England on cancer treatment and that, even with the additional £200 million made available for England by the Fund, this is still less than what is spent per head of population in Wales.