More than £100million was spent on prescribing common drugs like paracetamol last year, despite being available for pennies on the high street.
Official data also shows that the NHS in England has spent thousands of dollars on illicit substances like cocaine to use as an anaesthetic.
It comes just a day after Health Secretary Sajid Javid promised ‘every pound’ of the NHS would be ‘well spent’ in future.
In total, the NHS spent £9.69billion on prescription drugs in England for the 2021/22 financial year.
This is despite the health service banning GPs and other prescribers from dispensing drugs that patients themselves can buy cheaply from shops since 2018.
Think tanks today said taxpayers would be appalled by the NHS’ ‘unnecessary’ spending on ‘unnecessary prescriptions’ in light of the recent National Insurance tax hike.
Paracetamol accounted for £73.7m of expenditure, being prescribed more than 16m times, at around £4.50 per pack – around 15 times the price of a packet of paracetamol at the Tesco supermarket.
This graph shows how NHS spending on medicines has grown steadily over the past eight years to reach a total of £9.69billion in 2021/22. This despite the NHS’ promise to ban the prescription of over-the-counter drugs
At a glance, how much has the NHS spent on common medicines?
Paracetamol, a common painkiller, was prescribed 16million times at a cost of £73.7million.
Aspirin, which can be used as a painkiller or preventative medicine for heart attacks, was prescribed 20.8million times and cost £25.2million.
Ibuprofen, a painkiller prescribed for musculoskeletal and joint conditions, cost the taxpayer £12.6 million and was prescribed nearly 3.5 million times.
Packs of these three drugs can be bought for less than £1 in UK supermarkets.
The erectile dysfunction drug Viagra cost the taxpayer £6.8 million for 3.3 million doses.
At £2.06 a dose it’s actually cheaper than many pharmacies which can charge around £4.25 although the price varies.
Aspirin prescriptions cost the taxpayer more than £25.2million in 2021/22, or around £1.22 per pack, or about three times the cost of a pack at Sainsbury’s.
The NHS also paid over £12.6million for ibuprofen last year.
Per pack the cost was 12.5 times higher than Tesco’s own brand.
The health service also spent £6.8million prescribing Viagra, although the blue pill became an over-the-counter drug in 2018.
Taxpayers’ Alliance chief executive John O’Connell said the public would be appalled at the “unnecessary” cost of prescribing drugs that could be bought cheaper in a supermarket.
“Taxpayers are tired of overpaying for unnecessary prescriptions,” he said.
“As households face a hike in National Insurance, there can be no excuse for doctors to prescribe treatments that cost pennies over the counter.
“Now more than ever, the NHS must tackle waste and focus its resources on frontline healthcare.”
NHS prescribing data also showed nearly 15,000 penis vacuum pumps were purchased last year to treat erectile dysfunction, at a cost of £1.6million.
Cocaine has been prescribed 17 times in 2020/21 at a cost of £9,406, or around £550 a dose.
Ketamine, which is used as an illicit party drug, was prescribed 328 times that year, costing just under £20,000, or £60 a dose.
Both drugs are rarely used by the NHS for medicinal purposes, with cocaine being used as part of medical grade mouthwash for oral inflammation and ketamine as a very strong pain reliever.
Total NHS prescription spending of £9.6billion represented an increase of £83.7million (0.87%) on total spending the previous year.
High blood pressure drug Atorvastatin was the most prescribed drug in England, being dispensed 53.4 million times.
The anti-blood clot drug Apixaban was the most expensive individual drug, costing a total of £401 million despite being prescribed only 8 million times.
The NHS banned prescription over-the-counter drugs like eye drops, laxatives, sunscreen, paracetamol and dandruff shampoo in 2018 in a bid to save the health service £100million a year short of money.
However, as today’s figures show, the prescription of some over-the-counter medications remains high.
Critics of the decision to ban the prescription of certain items said poorer households would be hit hardest by the changes and some families could be forced to go without basic medicines.
Yesterday Mr Javid, who is under massive pressure to make the struggling NHS more efficient, promised ‘every pound’ would be ‘well spent’ in future.
His comments come as the NHS, which receives £136bn of taxpayers’ money each year, also receives an additional £12.5bn a year until 2024, funded by a controversial 1.25% raise national insurance.
A spokesperson for NHS England said paracetamol should not be routinely prescribed to save the health service money, but added doctors can still do it in certain circumstances.
“NHS England has advised against routinely prescribing paracetamol, to free up tens of millions of pounds to reinvest in patient care,” they said.
“Doctors can still prescribe over-the-counter drugs in exceptional circumstances, as only the Department of Health and Social Care can blacklist drugs and treatments.”