Though we have made enormous progress over recent years, smoking still kills 100,000 people in the UK every year, more than the next five causes of preventable death put together. Smoking is still the leading cause of health inequalities with far higher rates of smoking in the most disadvantaged groups. Half the difference in life expectancy between the rich and poor is caused by smoking.
Preventing children from taking up smoking is essential but when it comes to reducing the number of people who die as a result of smoking, prevention is only part of the jigsaw. Thousands of lives can be saved by supporting those who currently smoke to quit.
Reducing smoking in pregnancy is a good example of an area where further progress is vital. Around 70,000 babies every year are born to mothers who smoke and one baby dies every day in the UK as a result of smoking during pregnancy. Moreover, younger and more disadvantaged mothers are far more likely to smoke throughout their pregnancy.
We know that specialist support helps smokers quit. If you receive support from your local stop smoking services, you are four times more likely to quit than going ‘cold turkey’. However, not enough pregnant smokers are accessing this free support and there are simple steps we can take to improve this. For NHS staff, this means encouraging quit attempts by explaining to a smoker the health risks of smoking to both her and her unborn baby, and making sure she knows where to go to get help to quit.
Helping smokers to quit not only benefits the individual who stops but the wider NHS. A GP surgery in the West Midlands found that hosting a specialist stop smoking service within the practice resulted in a 40% fall in appointments for long term conditions. Unplanned admissions for smokers with smoking related illnesses reduced by 49%.
Every healthcare professional who comes into contact with a smoker can make a difference by encouraging them to quit. It might feel like this is a waste of time or isn’t a priority, but we know these conversations make a difference. If we all play our part, many thousands of lives can be saved.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive, Action on Smoking and Health