OBESITY and cardiovascular disease cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion a year for medication alone.
The two most-prescribed drugs on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme - Atorvastatin and Rosuvastatin - are in the drug class known as statins, which are used for lowering blood cholesterol, and they are the top charge on the subsidised pharmaceutical scheme.
In the past financial year, $731 million was spent on Atorvastatin, with the government contribution totalling $593 million, while Rosuvastatin cost $466 million, with a subsidy of $359 million. Another statin, Simvastatin, was 12th on the list, and cost taxpayers $109 million.
University of NSW professor of clinical pharmacology Ric Day said the figures were symptomatic of our sedentary culture, rising obesity and poor nutritional choices.
''They get a pill to fix it up easy, while not making any changes to their lives,'' Professor Day said.
There was no doubt many Australians had been prescribed statins needlessly, as their overall risk of heart disease was not high.
''Statins are overprescribed for young people,'' he said.
''If the only risk factor for cardiovascular disease is higher cholesterol, you could argue statins are not the answer.''
The National Prescribing Service said use of lipid-lowering drugs such as statins had increased from 4.8 per cent of those aged 45 and over in 1995 to more than 30 per cent now.
Australia has a high use of statins compared with other developed nations. Professor Day said this showed it was likely low-risk people were being treated with the drugs.
But Ben Freedman, professor of cardiology at the University of Sydney, said it was not surprising statins were the most common medication in the country, with more than 22 million prescriptions a year filled. ''Cardiovascular disease is the most prevalent disease in our community and will take the lives of about half the people who die,'' Professor Freedman said.
''Statins have been shown to be very effective in reducing recurrent events in people with known vascular disease, and preventing events in people when risk is high.''
He said the cost of statins would begin to decrease as the copyright ended and generic brands became available this year.
''You can never get your cholesterol down to the sort of levels you can get it down to with statins with diet and exercise alone - but I agree with the sentiment that if people did more lifestyle changes there would probably be less heart disease to start with.''
But there is a growing price to pay - the cost of the PBS jumped by 3.6 per cent to $9.1 billion last financial year, up from $8.8 billion for the previous year.