Why Don't We Treat Addiction To Smoking Like Any Other Critical Condition?

Smokers get a rough deal - their addiction is then too often seen as a lifestyle choice and not something requiring medical treatment
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New data released by NHS Digital highlights the continued decline in the use of stop smoking services across England. If you smoke, treatment to quit can literally save your life. So why is it that access to this life saving treatment is completely dependent on where you live?

This is wrong. Every smoker must have equal access to stop smoking services and medication.

As the leading preventable cause of death and health inequalities in the UK, the addiction to smoking must be treated in the same way as any other critical condition. Continuing to ignore discrimination against smokers will only deepen health inequalities. Something this government promised to eradicate.

There is overwhelming evidence which proves that with medication and behavioural support smokers are four times as likely to quit than trying without help. NHS stop smoking services are absolutely vital to provide not only medication but advice and support.

The British Lung Foundation’s (BLF) ‘Less Help to Quit’ report is a stark reminder that we are failing to address the very real addiction of smoking. In many areas Clinical Commissioning Groups are saving pennies by restricting stop smoking medications with the costs coming later as smokers fall ill.

The BLF report shows an appalling 75% decline in stop smoking aids being prescribed by GPs and pharmacists across the England.

This all comes down to money. A report by Cancer Research UK and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) shows the worrying cuts to the public health budget. Only 61% of local authorities continue to offer all local smokers access to evidence-based support in line with NICE guidance.

Local areas report year-on-year budget cuts to stop smoking services. There is now at least one local authority in England where there is a zero budget for addressing smoking. This is simply not good enough.

ASH and the BLF want to see national government action so smokers, wherever they live, have the best chance of quitting. This means putting money back into public health grant and increasing rather than restricting prescribing by GPs.

Addressing smoking is the responsibility of our entire health service. Every person who smokes should be able to expect their GP to provide access to medication to help them quit, either by prescribing themselves or by referral to a specialist service.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) report, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’, states the NHS’s failure to help smokers quit is “as negligent as not treating cancer”. The report calls for a radical change in the way the NHS treats smoking. The report argues that responsibility for treating smokers lies with every clinician who sees them.

The NHS Digital data reinforces the need for urgent change. Geography shouldn’t determine whether you get help to beat an addiction that can kill you. Smoking is a killer addiction and everyone who smokes, who wants to quit, is a priority and needs help.

Smokers get a rough deal. Most start smoking in childhood and quickly become addicted. Their addiction is then too often seen as a lifestyle choice and not something requiring medical treatment. It is way past time that the NHS changed and embedded the treatment smokers need into services.

Together we will be looking into how to improve treatment for smokers and bring an end to the unfair postcode lottery this will ultimately save lives and the NHS money.

Alison Cook is director of policy at the British Lung Foundation
Hazel Cheeseman is director of policy at Action on Smoking and Health