Ruling puts focus on deaths from smoking

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The Independent Online
DEATHS linked to smoking are likely to be more identifiable in future, after an agreement that will enable doctors to cite it as a factor without becoming entangled in bureaucracy.

Doctors will now be able to identify smoking as a contributory cause of death among the 111,000 who die annually, without necessarily referring the case to the coroner's office.

In the past, doctors have been reluctant to list smoking on death certificates because the possibility of an inquest would lead to further distress and delays for bereaved relatives.

Doctors from the British Medical Association (BMA) hailed the move as an important step towards showing the true level of smoking-related deaths since the accuracy of statistics would improve.

David Pollock, director of the anti-smoking group ASH, believed that the chief benefit would be in educating the public, as there would be no doubt that smoking was related to deaths.

However, he said that doctors would still be wary of identifying smoking as a factor in many cases.

The Home Office agreed that the coroner need not be informed in routine cases of death caused by smoking, following discussions between the BMA, the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys, and the Coroners' Working Party.

Dr Fleur Fisher, of the BMA, said: 'Smoking is recognised by doctors and the Government as the major cause of preventable early death. Now, whenever doctors sign a death certificate they will have to consider whether smoking was a cause of this particular person's death.

'The statistics will focus the attention of the doctors, the public and the politicians on the real measured cost of smoking in terms of lives lost.' The BMA said that a similar method of recording deaths in Oregon in the United States, showed that tobacco was a contributory cause of death in 23 per cent of all cases.

David Blunkett, Labour's health spokesman, welcomed the move but added a warning: 'For this change of policy to be effective, it is necessary for the Government to have a dramatic change of heart in relation to banning advertising of tobacco, other than at the place of sale, and to take positive steps to give clear warnings of the danger which they now acknowledge in terms of the risk of death from smoking.

'The notices on all forms of tobacco sold in other European and North American countries warn starkly of the risk of death. They compare dramatically with the mealy-mouthed and ambiguous statements currently in force in Britain.'

Robin Lewis, a solicitor with Bindman's, said that the change might help a group of lawyers, which includes his own firm, to win legal aid for 200 clients who are attempting to sue tobacco companies over smoking-related illnesses.