Anti-smoking ads to be toughest ever

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Health ministers will miss "by a wide margin" their target to cut the number of smokers in Britain by a quarter, one of the Government's leading advisers has warned.

Health ministers will miss "by a wide margin" their target to cut the number of smokers in Britain by a quarter, one of the Government's leading advisers has warned.

Professor Robert West's prediction came on the eve of a hard-hitting and emotive new anti-smoking advertising campaign, which is being launched on television by the NHS today.

Among those featured in the five adverts are a mother who struggles to tell her two young daughters that she has lung cancer - a disease which has a 95 per cent mortality rate in the UK, two children leaving their father's funeral, and, in a third advert, a girl laying flowers on her father's grave.

The NHS chose today to launch the new phase in its £6m anti-smoking campaign with upsetting adverts because families are much more likely to watch television together this weekend.

Melanie Johnson, the Public Health minister, said: "We know 70 per cent of smokers want to stop smoking. For some, fears about their children can be a stronger motivation to quit than fears for their own health. The uncompromising message ... will hit home with many parents."

But Professor West, director of tobacco studies at University College London, said he calculated that the Government would fail to meet its promise to cut smoking levels from 28 to 21 per cent of the population by 2010.

He welcomed the hard-hitting tactic, but said his analysis showed that ministers needed to more than double the number of people quitting to hit that target - a key part of the Department of Health's spending deal with the Treasury. "Despite everything that has gone on over the past few years, the number of smokers trying to quit in any one year has not changed one iota."

Only 30 per cent of smokers try to stop smoking, and less than 3 per cent succeed each year, he said. But ministers must get 50 per cent to try quitting, and at least 6 per cent to succeed every year.

The problem was influencing the majority of smokers who ignored the health warnings, he said. That should involve increasing the social stigma around smoking. "Something dramatic has to happen if we're going to hit that. Carrying on with what we're doing, they're not even going to get close."

He added that ministers had taken advice for the next set of adverts, which are being launched in early January and are aimed at smokers who made a New Year's resolution to quit. They will remind smokers that they can get free nicotine patches and counselling at NHS anti-smoking clinics - offering them a much more positive message.

The anti-smoking group Ash said Professor West was "absolutely right". Ministers would only hit their target if they banned smoking in all workplaces.

A DoH spokeswoman insisted that ministers were "on track". Smoking levels in England had dropped from 28 per cent of the population in 1998 to 25 per cent last year, she claimed. "Our research shows that campaigns like this have a lot of resonance with smokers. Boxing Day is when families are together. That provides a good opportunity to provide that motivation," she said.

Plans to outlaw smoking in most public places by 2008, including all bars and pubs serving food, could substantially reduce the number of smokers, but there is still no official timetable to introduce these measures. Speculation is growing, however, that the Government is planning to include them in a new public health Bill soon after the general election.

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