Ministers unveil plans to halve the number of smokers
The government has unveiled a new strategy aimed at halving the number of smokers by 2020.
In the past ten years, the number of smokers has fallen by a quarter, but 21 per cent of the adult population (over eight million people) still smoke and the addiction costs the NHS £2.7 billion each year.
Health secretary Andy Burnham has now announced a raft of commitments that should help to slash the number of smokers to just ten per cent of people by 2020.
Under the new strategy, which aims to build on the progress made since 1998's 'Smoking Kills' plan, more smokers will be encouraged to seek the help of the NHS to fight their addiction and the availability and range of treatment options will be broadened.
NHS Stop Smoking Services have helped more than two million people to quit since 1998, with 337,000 managing to give up last year alone.
Research suggests that seven out of ten smokers want to give up and the government hopes that its latest strategy will ensure they have the help they need, even if they require long-term support and treatment.
Ministers plan to crack down on cheap illicit cigarettes by investing in more overseas officers to stop tobacco smuggling operations.
The possibility of introducing plain packaging for tobacco products will be looked at and the government has confirmed that the sale of tobacco from vending machines will be stopped.
Other measures include the promotion of smoke-free homes and cars and a review of the existing smoke-free laws to see if they should be extended to include other areas, such as entrances to buildings.
Mr Burnham said that the government has made "massive progress" on tobacco, but that it intends to go "even further" to save more lives.
"Today's strategy renews our commitment to virtually eradicate the health harms caused by smoking and I firmly believe we can halve smoking by 2020. In ten years' time, only one in ten people will smoke," he claimed.
"Government should and will do everything in its power to protect young people."
The minister confirmed that this includes putting a stop to the smuggling of cheap tobacco into the country, as well as careful consideration as to whether tobacco companies should be required to use plain packaging.
"We will always help people to quit and smokers should never stop trying," Mr Burnham emphasised.
"That's the beauty of the NHS - it's there to help everyone. One day, in the not too distant future, we'll look back and find it hard to remember why anyone ever smoked in the first place."
Sir Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, said that the new strategy will "discourage children from taking up smoking and prevent a great number of unnecessary and early deaths".
The move was welcomed by Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association (BMA), who noted that smoking causes almost 90,000 deaths each year and costs the NHS millions of pounds.
"While UK tobacco control policies are some of the most stringent in Europe, more than one in five adults still smokes and many individuals continue to take up the habit," she observed.
"The BMA believes the government should and could do more and today's tobacco strategy shows the will exists to tackle this major public health issue."
Cancer Research UK's director of tobacco control, Jean King, also welcomed the commitment to reducing the harm caused by smoking.
She said: "We need a comprehensive plan that helps smokers quit, protects children and young people from second hand smoke and tobacco marketing. Only then will we see fewer lives blighted by a product that kills half of all long term users. Stopping the flow of illegal and cheap cigarettes into this country is also a vital step towards this goal."
Ms King noted that smoking is still the UK's largest cause of preventable death and urged the government to deliver upon all of its commitments, especially the review of smoke-free legislation and the removal of cigarette vending machines and point of sale displays in shops.
"It is vital that work is done to ensure parents know how dangerous it is to smoke in front of their children," she insisted. "The most effective way to prevent children smoking is by helping adults to quit. Breaking the cycle of tobacco addiction and preventing another generation from becoming addicted to tobacco must remain a priority for us all."