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Can the North East lead the way to a smokefree future

REGIONAL leaders and national health experts gather in the North East this week to explore how the region can condemn our biggest driver of ill health and death to history.

New figures from the ONS Annual Population Survey (APS) survey show the North East has seen the largest fall in smoking rates in England since 2005 with smoking more than halving from 29% of adults smoking in 2005 to 13.1% smoking in 2022.

However, smoking remains the single biggest cause of cancer and ill health,  because cigarettes are uniquely lethal, costing the North East nearly £1 billion a year in medical, health and social care, lost earnings and smoking-related unemployment. Reducing smoking would also provide a much-needed boost to household incomes and the economy.

The conference is held on Wednesday 27th September 2023 with speakers exploring how the region can reduce tobacco smoking rates to below 5% by 2030. It is being organised by Fresh with 12 local authorities and the North East and North Cumbria NHS Integrated Care Board (NENC ICB), Association of Directors of Public Health North East and OHID (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities).

The event will explore a range of topics around smoking - including the role of vaping and harm reduction, media campaigns in helping raise motivation to quit and reduce smoking prevalence, how stop smoking support can help high priority groups and key policy levers to reduce smoking further.

People in the North East show strong support for measures to reduce smoking with:

78% of adults support ending smoking with a target of fewer than 5% smoking by 2030
79% support making tobacco companies pay a levy to fund helping smokers quit and prevent young people from taking up smoking
72% support increased Government investment in public education campaigns on smoking aimed at adults and children
69% support raising the age of sale from 18 to 21 for tobacco
69% support inserts in tobacco packs encouraging smokers to quit

(ASH 2023 Smokefree GB survey carried out by YouGov)

Dr Neil O’Brien, Executive Medical Director of North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Board said: "As a GP I see first-hand the devastating effects smoking has on the health of my patients and the impact it also has on their loved ones too. Supporting people to quit smoking remains one of the single biggest things we can do to improve the health of people living in our region – especially people in our poorer communities who are more likely to smoke and die from smoking.

"Together we have made great strides to reduce smoking in this region but this comes from decades where we have had the highest rates of smoking and tobacco-caused diseases such as lung cancer and COPD, so there is still much more to do and for our NHS these are the compelling reasons why smoking is now being addressed as a core clinical priority across our region.

"We know that if we reduce smoking even further we will not only enable people to live longer healthier lives but it will have a massive and positive knock-on impact on our regional economy, which in turn with benefit the physical and mental health of our communities too."

Ailsa Rutter OBE, Director of Fresh and Balance said: “Our region has seen the largest fall in smoking in the country, and perhaps because our families and communities have suffered so much from tobacco we have some of the highest public support to make smoking history. But overall, smoking rates are not falling fast enough.

“A life of smoking means people suffering illness and incapacity younger in life, as well as killing 2 out of 3 smokers early – and a tragedy is that most smokers start as children and most would like to be able to quit.

“But one in four hospital beds is still occupied by somebody who smokes. Lung cancer is still rising among women. And smoking-related disease is still at an appallingly high level among people with a mental health condition. We need more action and more investment at national level to encourage smokers to quit and give them the support to stop.”

Former smoker Sue Mountain has undergone treatment three times for laryngeal cancer as a result of smoking and is attending as a speaker. She said: “I know the heartbreak of smoking. Like most I started when I was a kid, before I realised how addictive it was. You never start out as a child imagining a specialist saying “you have cancer” or the tens of thousands of pounds wasted.  That regret comes later. 

“The fact is that smoking has killed nearly 8million people in the UK in the last 50 years. Why do we tolerate this? Why aren’t we doing more to stop people getting ill, dying and spending all their money on addiction?

“Tobacco companies are making massive profits from an addiction that robs people of their lives and their health. I believe they need to pay for the damage they do.

“People like me don’t want their kids or grandchildren or any other family go through what we went through.”

Amanda Healy, Durham County Council's Director of Public Health and Chair of the North East Director of Public Health Network, said: “The North East has been one of the most proactive regions of England with nearly two decades now of joined up working from our local authority and NHS partners to reduce smoking.

“We have aimed to change our region’s culture around smoking, showing the risks and the benefits of stopping in equal measures. Our fall in smoking did not happen by accident, but from decision makers in the North East local authorities and NHS prioritising tobacco as our biggest killer and drain on our region. 

“By combining collective resources and working in partnership we can build on the largest falls in smoking to get smoking down to 5% or below and improve the life chances for our people.”

Professor Peter Kelly CBE, Regional Director and NHS Director of Public Health – North East & Yorkshire, Office for Health Improvement & Disparities, said: “‘North East Local Authorities, their Directors of Public health, the NHS and the NENC ICB are committed to ending smoking. We are building on a legacy of great work in the north east, which has seen smoking rates fall by more than half since 2005. By working together, partners are bringing about this sustained change, but there is still much to do. Addressing smoking related harm is vital if we are to reduce the health inequalities experienced by people in the north east.

“Stopping smoking at any time has immediate and long-term benefits for your health and for the health of those around you. With figures showing that avoidable cancers are on the increase, it also supports the aims of the NHS Long Term Plan, to not just treat people but stop them getting ill in the first place”.

Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health, said: "The North East has been a trailblazer for effective public health delivery in the UK since the setting up of Fresh in 2005 to tackle the region's biggest killer, smoking. With the support of Fresh, the region has achieved a faster percentage point decline than any other region – it is astonishing and commendable to see the region has more than halved smoking rates since it was set up. 

"But smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death particularly in the most disadvantaged regions like the North East. The disease, disability and premature death caused by smoking damages not just the population's health and wellbeing, but also inhibits economic growth, while the cost of smoking drives households into poverty.”

"Local authorities and NHS leaders in the North East are to be commended for recognising that the death and disease of smoking can only be ended by working in partnership together."

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