Statins save fewer lives than simple lifestyle changes like exercising and eating sensibly, scientists have found.
Researchers discovered that the wonder pills, taken by around seven million people in Britain, save around 750 lives a years by preventing fatal heart attacks and strokes.
But other health interventions aimed at lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, such as reductions in salt and fat consumption and upping activity levels prevent 4,600 deaths a year.
Academics at the University of Liverpool said the figures showed that more effort should be put into population-wide schemes to improve overall health.
Report author Martin O O’Flaherty said: “The success of clinical cardiology in providing cost-effective treatments that are based on scientific evidence needs to be celebrated.
“But population wide measures might offer substantially bigger health gains, relieve pressure on an already stressed health system and reduce health inequalities.
“Measures like controlling tobacco increasing physical activity, improving the contents of processed food products, restricting marketing of junk food, taxation of sugary drinks, and subsidies to make healthier foods more affordable require now renewed attention not just from academics, but crucially from people and policymakers.”
Under new guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) the majority of men aged over 60 and women over 65 are now offered drugs by their GPs, even if they only have a one in 10 chance of developing cardiovascular disease within a decade.
Nice experts claim that if everyone eligible took statins it would prevent 50,000 deaths a year, but the new research suggests the figure is far lower.
The new analysis showed that between 2000 and 2007 deaths from coronary heart disease fell by 38,000, of which 20,400 lives were saved as a direct result of reductions in blood pressure and total cholesterol.
The substantial fall in blood pressure accounted for well over half of the total, the calculations indicated, with around 13,000 deaths prevented or postponed.
But only a small proportion, 1800, of these were attributable to drug treatments, with the rest accounted for by changes in risk factors at the population level.
Falls in total cholesterol accounted for some 7400 deaths prevented or postponed, of which, 5300 or 14 per cent of the total, were attributable to statins.
The researchers said that preventative approaches are a better way to achieve results rather than handing out pills.
Prof Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the Institute of Health Equity, UCL, said it was important to address the causes of heart disease rather than use drugs to treat the consequences.
“We have to address the root causes of cardiovascular disease. And these are socially determined and progressively more common the more socially disadvantaged people are.
“Therefore we need to make significant changes to the environment in which people are born, live, grow, work and age.
“Choosing healthy lifestyles is more difficult because our society promotes cheap unhealthy foods, low alcohol prices, and car use instead of walking or cycling.”
Cardiovascular disease kills around 180,000 people a year in Britain, one in three deaths. The drugs cost the NHS about 10p per patient per day, adding up to £450 million annually.
Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Statins are very effective but they are probably best kept for those at high risk.
“The message from this study is clear. We know how to prevent coronary heart disease and our methods are working. We have made significant progress, preventing around 38,000 deaths from coronary heart disease, but there is still a long way to go.”
The research was published in the BMJ Open.