Calls to prioritise stop smoking services as 40% of councils cut budgets

Around 40% of English councils are scaling back budgets or recommissioning stop smoking services since public health transferred to local government in 2013, Cancer Research UK has found.

In the second report of its kind, the organisation found that two in every five areas are cutting back funding across the 126 local authorities engaged in stop smoking programmes.

Half of all services are also being reconfigured or recommissioned, suggesting high levels of change across the country.

The study follows on from the findings of the body’s first report, which covered the first year since tobacco control had migrated to councils from primary care trusts. At the time, while responses were generally positive, councils already flagged significant concerns over future cuts.

These fears were later confirmed in the government’s decision to cut public health spend by £200m just in 2015-16, and by nearly 4% per year over the next five years.

Forced to identify savings across public health services, councils may often target stop smoking services, as their provision is not mandatory.

George Butterworth, Cancer Research UK’s tobacco policy manager, argued that the report signalled a warning that councils’ “lifesaving work” needs to remain a priority regardless, with thousands of people looking to quit through free stop smoking services.

“We’re urging local government to remain committed to reducing smoking rates, and for national leadership to keep this issue on the agenda,” he said.

“These services are under threat from a lack of sustainable funding. The government must establish a sustainable funding model for local tobacco control and stop smoking services before they are eroded further.”

He also suggested that the tobacco industry should shoulder these service costs through a levy that could also be filtered into mass media campaign to help people quit.

But the research also highlighted positive feedback on councils’ management of these services, with 86% of respondents (across 118 responding councils) saying they valued the constructive relationships with their colleagues in other departments. Almost two-thirds also supported the integration of tobacco control in the wider strategy and business of councils.

Yet Hazel Cheeseman, director of policy for Action on Smoking and Health and co-author of the report, said even the wider role that councils play in tackling smoking – “such as enforcing existing laws on smoking and selling tobacco” – is under threat.

The LGA's community wellbeing spokesperson, Cllr Izzi Seccombe, told PSE in a statement: “Since the advent of e-cigarettes and campaigns such as Stoptober, we have seen the number of users of smoking cessation services fall, while the population of smokers left is now more challenging to get to quit. 

“This means councils are re-evaluating what they do on tobacco control and how to be more effective. Councils remain committed to helping smokers quit, however they face significant cuts to public health budgets this year, and spending large volumes of money on a service people are not using will fast undermine the cost-effectiveness of providing it.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health has also previously campaigned for a higher tobacco tax in order to tackle crucial public health issues and alleviate demand on the NHS, but this was not included in the government’s Spending Review.


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