Lamb: New tobacco plan must tackle link with mental illness

Norman Lamb has today (13th October) highlighted the need to tackle high smoking rates for people suffering with mental health conditions, and called on the Government to make this a priority in the new Tobacco Control Plan.

At a Westminster Hall Debate on tobacco control, Mr Lamb, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Health, reaffirmed the health risks associated with tobacco products. Smoking remains the largest cause of preventable illnesses and deaths in the country and it is estimated that around 96,000 people die in the UK from smoking-related diseases each year.

Smoking is responsible for half of the difference in life expectancy between the lowest and highest income groups.  In today’s debate, however, Mr. Lamb was keen to draw specific attention to another social inequality: the impact of smoking on people with mental illness.  People suffering from severe mental illness die on average 10-20 years earlier than the general population, with smoking identified as a major cause of this gap in life expectancy.

The UK has made significant progress in reducing smoking prevalence, including through Liberal Democrat Coalition successes on plain packaging for cigarettes and the ban on smoking in cars with children on board.  However, smoking rates among people with mental health conditions have remained stubbornly high over the last 20 years, at a time when rates have been steadily declining across the general population.

Mr. Lamb called for the new Tobacco Control Plan to directly address the failures of public health strategies to reduce smoking among people with mental ill health, and to set ambitious targets for reducing smoking among this group.  In particular, he encouraged the Government to focus on training mental health professionals so that they understand the importance of smoking cessation for recovery and see this as part of their core role.

Mr. Lamb also highlighted the importance of pursuing the objective of smoke-free inpatient mental health settings - a strategy that he initiated as a Minister.  Smoking breaks are normalised as part of the daily routine in many psychiatric wards, using up valuable staff time and stifling efforts to encourage people not to smoke. Recently, however, a number of mental health trusts have made progress towards delivering care in completely smoke-free grounds with access to high-quality on-site stop smoking services, having a beneficial effect on the physical and mental health of patients, reducing aggressive behaviour, and freeing up staff time to focus on therapeutic activities.

In other areas, Mr Lamb:

  • Challenged the Government to do more to recognise and promote the massive potential benefits of electronic cigarettes as an alternative to smoking tobacco, and to review the impact of the European Tobacco Products Directive which takes an excessively tough approach to the promotion of these products;
  • Stressed the UK’s world leading role in tobacco control, and the need for the new tobacco plan to set out details on how the Government will use the Overseas Development Assistance Fund that has been established for combating smoking in developing countries; and 
  • Highlighted the importance of public health funding to ensure that local authorities can continue to provide high-quality stop smoking services in the community. He reinforced the Health Select Committee’s conclusion that the Government is finding extra money for front-line NHS services by cutting funding for public health and staff training, and called on the Government to review this counter-productive approach. 

You can read Norman's speech in full here

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