Smokers costing NHS pounds 1.7m a day: Head of BMA ethics division calls for ban on advertising of tobacco products and increase in price of cigarettes in Budget

SMOKERS are costing the country more than pounds 1.67m a day in medical treatments and consultations, according to new statistics which for the first time say how much the habit costs the NHS.

The Health Education Authority (HEA) said yesterday that smokers account for 8 million 'extra' visits to the GP every year, resulting in pounds 1m a week being spent on prescriptions for smoking-related conditions in England and Wales.

In the third of a series of smoking cost analyses, the HEA report says: 'Today for the first time the costs to primary health care can be added to those of secondary care in hospitals, bringing the total cost to the NHS to more than pounds 610m a year.'

The report, The Smoking Epidemic, A Prescription for Change, emphasises the role of the family doctor and primary health care teams in helping people to give up.

The new analysis, carried out by Christine Godfrey, an economist at the Centre for Health Economics at York University, puts the annual cost of GP consultations at pounds 89,400,000; prescriptions at pounds 52,306,000; outpatient visits at pounds 208,880,000 and inpatient episodes at pounds 260,680,000 - a total of pounds 611,266,000 a year.

Ms Godfrey said that the related costs of passive smoking were not included in the sum, but that the additional costs for treating the children of parents who smoke amounts to an additional pounds 143m a year.

Dr Fleur Fisher, head of the ethics division of the British Medical Association (BMA) called on the Government to ban advertising of tobacco products, and to increase the price of cigarettes at the budget. 'Stopping smoking is the single most effective thing that any individual can do to improve their own health,' Dr Fisher said. 'We have to help individuals and support people who want to stop smoking and that support needs action at a number of levels.'

Smoking was a true addiction for many, she said, and support needed to come from the family, the GP, the workplace and the Government. Dr Fisher reiterated the BMA's position that treatment should never be denied to individuals because they were members of a group. 'We treat patients as individuals according to their clinical need,' she said.

Dr Jacky Chambers, deputy chief executive of the HEA, said that doctors could do more. 'We do feel that GPs and their staff have a particular contribution to make. Six out of 10 smokers who visit a GP are worried about smoking and expect to be asked about it. But only one in four do discuss it.'

A regional breakdown of smoking habits shows that young people in South-east England tended to smoke more. Among 25 to 34-year-old men and 16 to 24-year-old women, 41.6 per cent are smokers. In North-west England, 44.3 per cent of 16 to 24-year-old men are smokers.

Dr Fisher said the information should be used to target the groups providing health education that was revelant to their lifestyles.

The Smoking Epidemic, A Prescription for Change; Health Education Authority; pounds 4.99.

(Photograph omitted)