The NHS in England spent £442m on prescription painkillers last year, with GPs in the north prescribing up to 69% more painkillers than those in the south, according to new figures.
Analysis completed by SSentif, using data from the NHS Information Centre and the Office for National Statistics, reveals significant spending variations between PCTs and a huge geographical difference in GPs' prescribing habits.
Overall the total sum equates to an average spend per head of £8.80, but in some northern towns and cities this figure increases to £15 per head while in some areas of the south it is as low as £3.26 per head.
According to figures, the highest prescribing rates are in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Rochdale and Blackpool, with painkiller prescription bills in those PCTs averaging £2.3m each.
These figures are more than double the prescription rate in the least medicated PCTs of Richmond and Twickenham, Camden and Westminster, despite having significantly lower populations.
In the south there was a very strong correlation between painkiller spending and age – yet almost no correlation with deprivation, despite having some of the most deprived areas of the country.
Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham for instance, despite their high deprivation percentage, all spend less than £5.50 per head.
In the north there is a slight correlation with deprivation but almost none with age, with the highest spender Middlesbrough having a below average percentage of elderly people, but a high deprivation percentage of 38%.
As well as revealing the huge spending variations between PCTs, data analysis also showed that some PCTs are spending thousands prescribing over-the-counter painkillers and branded cold and flu treatments such as Lemsip, Beechams, Anadin and Panadol.
Judy Aldred, managing director of SSentif, said: "£442m is a huge amount and the data shows spend on analgesics has increased steadily year-on-year, with figures from 08/09 and 09/10 showing spends of £384m and £410m respectively.
"Although the figures involved were comparatively low, it was concerning to see products such as Lemsip and even Alka Seltzer XS offered on prescription.
"When GPs begin shouldering the responsibility for prescribing costs it will be interesting to see if this continues," she said.
But RCGP Dr Clare Gerada told the BBC: "GPs do not prescribe just for the sake of it; they do it for the good of their patients.
"There are very many reasons why GPs prescribe painkillers, including – but not limited to – the changing and increased needs of our ageing population, and the improved use of painkillers themselves, for example in alleviating the symptoms of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis."
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"Richmond and Twickenham, Camden and Westminster, all wealthy areas. Instead of looking for a correlation with deprivation why not try the reverse; many prefer to buy over the counter rather than ask their GP for something they can buy, and buy cheaply." - Haworth, Cumbria