The Department of Health's medicines watchdog has lifted a ban on selling Nicorette chewing gum outside chemists to help people give up smoking.
The move, to be announced this month, is the first step in a major review of government policy on smoking and health.
It comes on the eve of a White Paper in which ministers will announce plans to hand out free nicotine gum and patches to those on low incomes.
Under the current law, nicotine gum can only be sold if a pharmacist is present to give advice on its use. This means that people who want the gum outside normal chemist opening hours often resort to buying cigarettes to curb their cravings.
The ruling on nicotine gum by the Medicines Control Agency opens the route for nicotine patches and stronger nicotine-based products to be sold by ordinary shopkeepers, publicans and restaurateurs. "It's absurd that you can buy cigarettes anywhere and at any time of day or night but with pharmaceutical products it's much more difficult to get access to them," said Martin Jarvis, Principal Scientist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. "We know that nicotine replacement helps people to quit and making it more widely available is a good thing."
The gum, which releases low levels of nicotine when chewed, does not contain the tar which causes cancer. Each piece of 2mg gum produces the same amount of nicotine as half a cigarette.
The decision will break the monopoly of chemists such as Boots which are the only retailers allowed to sell nicotine replacement therapies under the current law.
The announcement will be welcomed by anti-smoking campaigners who say it will help thousands of people to quit. Nicotine replacement therapies double the chance of stopping smoking.
The Medicines Control Agency, a Government body attached to the Department of Health, is staffed by scientists and independent experts.
It decided to lift the ban on selling 2mg nicotine gum after an application by the manufacturer of Nicorette, Pharmacia & UpJohn. The Department of Health will put the watchdog's decision out to consultation in the next fortnight. The ruling will pave the way for brands of 2mg nicotine gum, other than Nicorette, to be sold in corner shops, pubs, bars and supermarkets.
The gum, which costs about pounds 6 a pack, will still come with instructions for use, advice about storing the medicine and information about possible side effects.
The gum is designed to be gradually phased out as the former smoker's addiction to nicotine lessens.
The Department of Health is planning to make nicotine replacement therapy available to heavy smokers who would not buy it in the shops. It wants to target people on low incomes but fears that putting patches and gum on prescription would cost millions of pounds.
It is examining ways of means testing so that only those who cannot afford nicotine replacement or are in dire medical need will have access to free gum or patches.
The government also aims to take steps to segregate smokers in pubs and clubs to help combat passive smoking. It wants restaurants and pubs to introduce extractor fans to suck up smoke but will stop short of introducing a total ban to avoid accusations of "nannying". It also fears that a ban on smoking in public places could lead to pub closures and job losses.
In the UK 120,000 people die prematurely each year from smoking-related diseases. The success rate for quitting smoking "cold-turkey" without help from experts, doctors or a replacement therapy, is about 3 per cent.Reuse content