Pfizer hopes consumers will soon be able to get its cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor (atorvastatin) without a prescription, according to two news reports. But our medical advisors say that’s a bad idea because Lipitor and other statins are potent medications that can cause dangerous side effects, and should only be taken with a doctor's supervision.
The company is likely looking for ways to make up lost sales—the drug racked up nearly $11 billion last year according to figures from IMS Health—when the patent expires in November. The Food and Drug Administration would have to grant permission for the switch, but that seems unlikely because it has previously said no to over-the-counter sales of two other statins—Mevacor (lovastatin) and Pravachol (pravastatin)—in part due to concerns about safety and that people who don't actually need the medications might take them.
Bottom line: We have long opposed statins, including Lipitor, being sold without a prescription. All statins can cause side effects, including muscle soreness and a rare condition that can cause kidney damage, kidney failure, and death. They can also interact with other medications. So it's best if a doctor helps manage your medications, tests your cholesterol levels and determines if a statin is appropriate for your health situation. Also, many people with high cholesterol might be able to reduce it to healthy levels with exercise, modifying their diet, losing weight and other lifestyle changes, without the need for medication.