Yesterday, Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State for Health, announced that, in future, smokers would not be able to get the patches on prescription.
Although agreeing that they helped some smokers to stop, Dr Mawhinney said: 'People who can afford to smoke can also afford to buy the products which may help them stop smoking. There are about 11 million ex-smokers in this country and the vast majority have given up without pharmocological help.'
There are seven brands of nicotine patch available, all of which are similarly priced by their manufacturers at about pounds 15 for a week's supply, which is close to the weekly cost of smoking 20 cigarettes a day.
A course of treatment usually lasts for 12 weeks. Smoking campaigners say that they would rather the patches were available through doctors as part of a stop-smoking programme than over the counter.
Mark Flannagan, the deputy director of the campaign group Ash (Action for Smoking and Health), warned that the Government's decision would send a confusing message to smokers.