Top doctors: NHS should automatically enrol smokers on quitting plans

NHS should enrol all smokers on programmes to help them quit tobacco, leading doctors say

  • Top doctors insist NHS automatically enrol smokers on plans to help them quit
  • Royal College of Physicians report calls for pregnant women to be paid to stop 
  • Experts also call for doubling the price of smokes, e-cigarette media campaigns 

The NHS should automatically enrol all smokers on programmes to help them quit, leading doctors have said.

A report by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) also called for pregnant women to be paid to give up and for a huge tax increase that would double the price of cigarettes over five years.

The doctors said that providing ‘opt-out smoking cessation services to all smokers at any point of contact with the NHS’ would double uptake of services.

They added that the Government should invest millions of pounds in media campaigns to urge smokers to switch from tobacco to e-cigarettes, which are less harmful. 

In July 2019, the Government announced its ambition for a ‘Smokefree 2030’, where the overall percentage of the population that smokes is five per cent or under.

But today’s RCP report warned this target may not be hit until after 2050 unless tougher measures are introduced.

Leading doctors have urged the NHS to automatically enrol all smokers on programmes to help them quit

In its report, the RCP called for several measures to be brought in, including a radical tax increase that would ‘double the price of cigarettes over a five-year period.’

These should be combined with other stop smoking measures, such as nicotine replacement therapy and advice on e-cigarettes, which are currently not prescribed on the NHS.

They also urged the Government to introduce better regulation of film and television to ensure that children are not exposed to tobacco images.

This would include a 9pm watershed and 18 certificates applied to TV programmes and films that feature tobacco.

The report said: ‘The ability of the UK and other countries to rise to major public health challenges is beyond doubt; the Covid-19 pandemic, by far the biggest new challenge to UK and global health in decades, has attracted a public health and economic response of a scale unique in the modern era.

‘Yet in 2020, when Covid-19 killed around 80,000 UK citizens, tobacco smoking killed 94,000.’ 

Professor John Britton, RCP tobacco advisory group member, said: ‘Smoking is entirely preventable, but ending smoking requires us to go even further with the more familiar prevention measures, such as tax and providing help for smokers to quit, but also tackling some of the causes that have not yet been addressed – and particularly the exposure of children to tobacco imagery in film, television and other media.

‘Doing this will prevent countless deaths, dramatically reduce the burden placed by tobacco use on health services and wider society, substantially reduce inequalities in health and, by alleviating poverty and improving health, contribute significantly to the levelling up of our society.’

Dr Nick Hopkinson, RCP tobacco advisory group member, said: ‘Support to quit smoking is one of the most effective and highest value treatments that the healthcare system can deliver, but many smokers are missing out on this.

‘Developing a universal offer through the NHS so that every smoker receives this support, unless they actively opt out, has to be a priority.’

Professor Jon Bennett, chairman of the British Thoracic Society, said: ‘Whenever a patient is admitted to hospital, we have a golden opportunity to help and support them quitting smoking for good.

The Royal College of Physicians also called for pregnant women to be paid to quit smoking and for a huge tax increase that would double the price of cigarettes over five years. (File picture)

‘Referrals to on-site smoking cessation services must become the norm for all patients who smoke, and these services should have as a minimum, dedicated leadership, smoking cessation training for staff and access to a comprehensive range of pharmacotherapy and nicotine replacement products.

‘But we also agree with the RCP that these measures won’t be enough alone, so it’s good to see recommendations covering taxation and smoke-free legislation.

‘The largest proportion of smokers come from disadvantaged or lower socio-economic groups, causing deep health inequalities.

‘So we welcome the focus on initiatives that do not discriminate but support these groups to quit and reduce the number of new smokers.’ 

In the UK, in 2019, 14.1 per cent of people aged 18 and over smoked cigarettes, which equates to around 6.9 million people.

Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body. It causes lung cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease and is implicated in other cancers, including lip, mouth, throat, bladder, kidney, stomach, liver and cervix.

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