You hear a lot about the cost of medicines but the truth is most of us don’t take enough of them. Statins, for example, would probably benefit most of us over 50 but they’re given only to those with high cardiovascular risks. Pneumococcal vaccines would certainly benefit all adults over 50 but they’re usually not recommended until you reach 75 or 80 (depending on the country). Flu vaccines would save the lives of tens of thousands of us a year.We don’t get the medicines because payers (the state or insurance schemes) can’t afford to buy them for all of us and most of us are reluctant to pay out of pocket for medicines or vaccines with modest but pronounced long-term benefits.

However, we pay happily for death pills. Americans alone spend over $27 billion a year on supplements — Europeans are almost as bad. The supplements not only do them no good, an increasing body of research suggests they probably do a lot of harm: as Dr Paul Offit points out in this excellent New York Times piece, many studies show that vulnerable people die sooner if they take some kinds of supplements. This death toll continues because the supplement peddlers have stopped exactly the kind of regulation that the pharmaceutical industry accepts without much question. Offit talks about the US but much the same has happened in the EU.

What’s worse: it’s legal to promote wild claims for the benefits of vitamins but most direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of well-tested, highly-scrutinised medicines is illegal. Even in the US (where some DTC is legal), doctors are constantly trying to prohibit advertising to patients, even under tight regulation.

Offit is, of course, the author who has taken on the anti-vaccine crazies for the last decade. However, he’s a rare voice of sanity.