Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Switching prescription drugs to over the counter

BMJ 2004; 330 doi: (Published 30 December 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;330:39
  1. Joshua P Cohen, senior research fellow (,
  2. Cherie Paquette, research coordinator1,
  3. Catherine P Cairns, research coordinator1
  1. 1Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, Tufts University School of Medicine, 192 South Street, Suite 550, Boston MA 02111, USA
  1. Correspondence to: J P Cohen
  • Accepted 18 October 2004

Appropriate self treatment is an important aspect of both the European and American healthcare systems, but what is really driving increased over the counter availability?


Increased numbers of prescription drugs are being made available over the counter worldwide. Recent high profile switches have included drugs in classes previously not eligible, such as omeprazole in Sweden and simvastatin in the United Kingdom. Switches are motivated mainly by three factors: pharmaceutical firms' desire to extend the viability of brand names; attempts by healthcare funders to contain costs; and the self care movement. Making drugs available over the counter affects a large number of stakeholders, including patients, pharmaceutical firms, physicians, pharmacists, drug regulatory agencies, and private and public health funding organisations. In this article, we illustrate the roles that pharmaceutical firms, healthcare organisations, and government regulatory agencies played in three recent switches that have fuelled global debate: simvastatin in the United Kingdom, omeprazole in Sweden, and loratadine in the United States.


Generally, a prescription drug becomes a candidate for over the counter availability if it is used for a non-chronic condition that is relatively easy to self diagnose and has low potential for harm from abuse under conditions of widespread availability. Statins do not fit this description. Much has been said about the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency's controversial decision in May 2004 to reclassify simvastatin 10 mg as an over the counter medicine. In a best case scenario, the switch will increase use of simvastatin by people at moderate risk of developing coronary heart disease, resulting in reduced risk. However, there have been no clinical trials of over the counter statins for primary prevention of heart disease.

Concern has been raised that the main motive behind the government's decision to allow simvastatin to be sold directly to the public is …

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