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Tuesday, June 9, 1998 Published at 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK

Health: Latest News

Smokers 'should get help on NHS'

Smoking aids can double the chances of quitting

Nicotine patches and gum should be made available on the NHS to help people give up smoking, according to healthcare experts.

A new report by a panel of scientists and doctors claims Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) says smokers are twice as likely to give up with patches and gum than through willpower alone.

The team also rubbished "myths" that NRT was dangerous, encouraged a new addiction or was more expensive than smoking.

Biggest cause of death

Not only was smoking the most important cause of ill-health and premature death in the UK, the report said. It also led to health inequalities as poor people were the most likely to smoke and the least likely to quit.

[ image: Smoking widens health inequalities]
Smoking widens health inequalities
Panel chairman Dr Godfrey Fowler, emeritus professor of general practice at Oxford University, said: "With the prevalence of smoking increasing after 20 years of decline, it is clear that positive action must be taken to get ahead in the war against smoking and tobacco.

"We are asking the government, those responsible for public policy, healthcare professionals and smokers alike to recognise once and for all that nicotine replacement therapy is not only safe, but is also the most effective aid to smoking cessation currently available.

"Its use should not only be endorsed, but also encouraged by everyone who has an interest in seeing a reduction in the morbidity and mortality rates of all smokers."

Reduced craving

Panel member Dr Martin Jarvis, a principle scientist in the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Health Behaviour Unit, said the nicotine dose from NRT reduced craving, but was much lower than the dose from cigarettes.

There was no evidence NRT was attractive to non-smokers or led to new cases of nicotine dependence.

The report recommended that:

  • Tobacco addiction should be taken as seriously as drug or alcohol addiction.
  • NRT should be made available on prescription, in the form of nicotine patches and gum.
  • Health authorities should commission effective strategies to help people stop smoking, incorporating the use of NRT.
  • Clinical guidance should be issued to healthcare professionals.
  • Healthcare professionals including GPs, hospital doctors and pharmacists should be made more aware of how NRT can help people to quit.
  • Nationally-funded publicity and health education campaigns, devoted to tobacco and healthcare, should draw more public attention to the availability and benefits of NRT.
  • Research should be commissioned to investigate the potential benefits of using NRT to get people off smoking on a temporary basis - for example when heavy smokers are in hospital or when smokers want to quit at some point, but are not yet ready to do so permanently.

Kevin Barron, chairman of the Labour backbench health committee and of the all-party Parliamentary Smoking and Health Group, said: "The NHS should run some pilot programmes, using either Health Improvement Programmes or Health Action Zones, to measure, through independent evaluation, the health and cost benefit of such strategies."

The Department of Health's Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health recently supported and urged greater use of NRT as an aid to smoking cessation.

The report was welcomed by the British Medical Association, which has recently lobbied the government on NRT, but it says it should not just be available on prescription.

A spokesman said: "We think it should be much more readily available because it is a very effective means of giving up smoking. Our recent submission highlights the need in particular to make it available to specific groups such as expectant mothers.

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