The numbers of people using NHS Stop Smoking Services in Wales is increasing while falling in the rest of the UK, figures show.
Data from the final quarter of 2017/18 – between January and March this year – shows Wales is continuing to see an increase in those accessing NHS Stop Smoking Services which includes Help Me Quit and community pharmacy support, bucking trends seen in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Figures for the whole of 2017/18 show that 14,783 smokers in Wales sought help from NHS Stop Smoking Services, the majority through pharmacy-based schemes.
The figure – while falling short of the Welsh government annual target to treat 5% of smokers – has been on the rise for the past three years.
By contrast figures for 2017/18 in England show an 11% drop from 2016/17 to 274,021 – the sixth consecutive year in which the numbers have fallen.
The number of smokers accessing NHS stop smoking services in Scotland has been falling for years with a 50% decline since 2011/12.
Trends in Northern Ireland show the same pattern with 15,461 smokers setting a quit date in 2017/18 compared with 18,637 the previous year.
In a report published in July, the Royal College of Physicians said it was not clear why numbers were increasing in Wales while falling in the rest of the UK.
But it said the decline in numbers showed that services were ‘failing to reach millions of smokers’.
And it stressed that preventing smoking – which still kills an estimated 100,000 people every year in the UK – should ‘be the highest priority in medicine’.
In England 14.9% of adults are smokers compared with more than 16% in other UK nations.
The increasing popularity of e-cigarettes has been cited as a factor in the fall in numbers but GPs and public health experts have raised concerns about funding cuts and lack of investment in prevention.
A Pulse investigation published in May found councils were slashing public health budgets with some scrapping smoking cessation services altogether.
Welsh health secretary Vaughan Gething said the latest figures, showing continued increases in people accessing NHS Stop Smoking Services, were ‘encouraging’.
‘The number of people successfully quitting through these services is also increasing,’ he added.
Suzanne Cass, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Wales said: ‘The continued investment in stop smoking services means Wales is bucking the trend of budget cuts in England which has led to many services being disbanded.’
Strategies have included a number of GP-based initiatives aimed at increasing referral rates including in North Wales where smokers have received letters from their GP’s inviting them to a cessation session and in Swansea where GPs and practice staff have been using CO monitors to test smokers’ levels to encourage them to use stop smoking services, she said.
But more work is needed, she stressed, if the Welsh Government is to hit its target of
16% smoking prevalence by 2020.
‘The figures released today are reassuring, however, more innovative approaches must be encouraged to specifically target those ‘hard to reach’ groups where smoking levels remain high,’ she added.
Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the BMA’s GP Committee for the UK as well as England, said: ‘We have real concerns about the impact of local authorities cutting back on smoking cessation services because of funding pressures.
‘This short term cost-cutting approach to important public health measures will have a big and potentially far more costly implications for the NHS in the long term. It’s yet another example of how the changes made by the separation of public health from the NHS is having a damaging impact on the nation’s health.’