Stockton's Infinity Bridge

Could the North East become a no smoking region by 2033?

20 March 2013

Could the North East become England's first no smoking region within two decades? And can a lifetime of addiction and ill health become a thing of the past for most young people growing up here?

These are the questions being asked by health campaigners Fresh as experts from around the country gather in the North East, including Action on Smoking and Health, the Royal College of Physicians and local authorities, for a conference on Making Smoking History (March 20). The conference is being co-hosted by Fresh and ANEC.

Discussions about an "endgame" for smoking are taking place in other countries like New Zealand, Iceland and Australia, but this is the first major conference in the UK looking at strategies to resign our biggest avoidable killer to history.

Smoking is still the North East's biggest killer, costing the region around £170m a year, killing 11 people a day and causing 460,000 GP consultations and over 30,000 hospital admissions every year.

But from a region with the worst smoking rates, the North East has topped the tables for quitting - from 29% of people smoking in 2005 down to 21% in 2011* - double the national average, with corresponding drops in many smoking related diseases.

Responsibility for public health transfers from the NHS across to local authorities from April 1 2013, bringing new opportunities to transform the health of people in North East communities.

The latest public opinion data from the North East shows:

  • 89% of North East adults would like smoking to become a thing of the past for children
  • Only 6% of North East adults say they trust tobacco companies to tell the truth
  • 85% of North East adults would support a ban on smoking in cars carrying children

Ailsa Rutter, Director of Fresh, said: "Most smokers get hooked as children on an addictive, poisonous product that kills half of long term users, and end up bitterly regretting it. Tobacco is something that has harmed too many families.

"No-one is talking about banning smoking, but we believe it is time to start thinking about a time when the vast majority of people do not smoke, and how we can make smoking history faster.

"We don't want children to grow up in families and communities where they think it's normal to spend £7 a day on an addiction and die early from lung cancer, COPD and heart disease."

Prof Sir John Britton, Chair of the Royal College of Physicians Tobacco Advisory Group and who is speaking at the conference, said: "The North East has amazed everyone over the past decade with the massive steps taken to cut smoking, but there is much more that must be done to rid society of the harm caused by tobacco.

"Although they are now heavily taxed, cigarettes are more affordable in the UK now than they were in 1965. We still have glossy packs aimed at young people, and hundreds of thousands of children are still exposed to smoke in the home and the car.

"We also still have multinational tobacco giants making representations to Ministers and trying to exert an influence over local authorities to protect their profits, no matter what the cost to health."

Cllr Paul Watson, Chair of ANEC, said: "We welcome the transition of public health to local authorities. It's a chance to put the wellbeing and health of people in our communities at the heart of policy.

"I'm proud of the way the North East has shaken off its image as the worst area for smoking and now other regions look to us for ideas and inspiration.

"Smoking affects the life chances of every child who grows up to smoke, especially in some of our poorest wards. Councils have agreed that tackling smoking locally and as a region is an ongoing priority."

Fresh - the UK's first dedicated tobacco control programme was set up in 2005 to tackle the worst rates of smoking related illness and death in the country and was commended by England's Chief Medical Officer, winning Gold in the Chief Medical Officer's Public Health Awards in 2009.

Prof Sir John Burn, Lead Clinician for NHS North East and Genetics lead for the National Institute of Health Research, said: "Last year my wife and I visited London to see Billy Elliott ,during which a real cigarette was lit, and the smoke drifted up to the circle seats.

"Growing up as I did in a real pit village, it reminded me cigarettes were everywhere and the problem at the cinema back then was seeing through the clouds of smoke. We've come a long way but we must not slow down.

"Billy Elliot brought back lots of fond memories but that whiff of cigarette smoke reminded me of the damage we did to ourselves.  It's a memory we need to consign to the history books forever."

 *Smoking data from General Lifestyle Survey 2011

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