Millions of people are to be prescribed cholesterol-busting drugs on the National Health Service in Britain’s biggest mass medication program for adults.

The government’s drugs watchdog is expected this week to recommend the systematic screening of all adults at 40, 50 and 60 for heart disease.

Those found to have a 20% chance of developing it over the next 10 years will be prescribed statins, the cholesterol-lowering “wonder drugs” that have had dramatic results in preventing heart disease.

New research suggests that as many as 14 million – half of all adults aged 40 or over – could be eligible for the drugs even though they have no symptoms.

Some doctors say a national screening program could prevent up to 14,000 deaths a year. Heart disease is Britain’s biggest killer, claiming 105,000 lives a year.

Other experts fear, however, that a program of mass medication would make millions of adults dependent on drugs for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Peter Brindle, a researcher in cardiovascular disease at Bristol University, said: “ This is turning people into patients. They are going to be offered this preventative drug for the rest of their life with all the risks and side effects. There has to be a public debate about whether society feels this should be done.”

Statins are considered to be safe but patients can experience muscle pain or liver problems. Some doctors argue that it is not worth risking these side effects for people who are not suffering symptoms of heart disease.

At present patients who have suffered a heart attack or angina are eligible for statins on the NHS and some of those at risk, but not ill, are already being prescribed statins at their general practitioner’s discretion. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is expected to argue that a systematic screening program would pick up millions of other people who could benefit from the drugs.

GPs would be expected to do the screening, checking patients’ cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight and whether they smoke. Men are at higher risk than women.

If 14 million people were subsequently prescribed statins, it would cost the NHS at least £560m a year. But, say cardiologists, it could save billions in treatment costs. Research by Dr. Ift-ikhar Haq, a consultant cardiologist in Newcastle upon Tyne, shows that if everyone aged 40 and above was screened for heart disease, 47% of those who show no symptoms would qualify for preventative treatment with statin drugs.

Statins work by lowering cholesterol, which can cause fatty desposits in the arteries leading to heart disease.