Helpline swamped by smokers trying to quit ahead of ban
PLANS to ban lighting up in bars and restaurants have caused a massive increase in Scots smokers seeking help to kick the habit.
Calls to the national smoking helpline have soared by an unprecedented 50% in the year since ministers unveiled the cigarette ban, which is due to become law next year.
Scottish GPs have also confirmed that many of those asking for help to stop smoking cite the imminent ban as a key factor. Anti-smoking prescriptions and sales of nicotine patches have also soared.
But while health campaigners welcome the development, the anti-ban lobby say it proves the outlawing of cigarettes is not about protecting bar workers but a "nanny state" drive to force smokers to quit.
The Scottish Executive's bill, which will impose fines of up to 1,100 on those who light up in pubs and restaurants, could be in place as early as next April, despite widespread opposition.
Smokers, many of whom already feel under siege form the health profession, recently lost one of the highest-profile celebrities among them when 30-a-day actor Ewan McGregor revealed he had quit.
New figures from Smokeline show a 53% increase in callers in the 12 months from March 2004 - up from 41,500 to 63,000. The Executive announced in January 2004 that it was to consult on a possible smoking ban. Two months later it emerged restrictions were all but certain.
The surge in would-be quitters has come despite no major increase in government advertising aimed at persuading smokers to stop.
Sally Haw, from NHS Health Scotland, the agency which operates Smokeline, said: "The increase is very much welcome and shows that public attitudes are changing.
"This bill will be the biggest change in public health since the 1950s. We also believe there will be a further increase in demand when then bill is passed, and then when it comes into effect, and we are in discussions about how we can gear up for the extra demand for advice and support."
The Smokeline service operates from midday until midnight, seven days a week. An operator will normally try to put the caller in touch with a local support group for people trying to quit, and will also tell them what products and help are available from GPs.
Dr Mairi Scott, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "People have recognised that the ban is coming and that they want to use the change to break the habit.
"The vast majority of people are looking for a reason to stop smoking and many are mentioning to doctors that they see this is a good time to do so."
Dr Dean Marshall, deputy chairman of the BMA's Scottish General Practitioners Committee and a GP in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, said: "The ban is something that people have mentioned when they come in to talk about stopping smoking."
Figures for sales and prescriptions of smoking cessation products are also on the up.
A spokeswoman for the pharmaceuticals firm Novartis, which makes Nicotinell, Niquitin CQ and Nicorette, said UK-wide sales had risen 12% for the past four weeks, compared with the same period last year.
Scottish doctors report a 5% increase in the number of anti-smoking prescriptions dispensed in the past year - up to a record 662,000.
Maureen Moore, the chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health Scotland, said: "The first aim of the ban is to protect the health of staff in public places. But it also has the result of helping people stop by taking away the "trigger points" that encourage people to smoke."
Health minister Andy Kerr said: "Smoking kills around 13,000 people in Scotland every year and any increase in the number trying to kick the habit must be welcomed."
But a spokesman for the smokers' rights lobby group Forest said the figures showed ministers had attempted to mislead the public through their anti-smoking bill.
He said: "This shows that all along ministers have been dishonest in their approach to this proposal.
"They said that the ban was about bar staff and protecting them from smoke.
"The reality is that this is a law aimed at forcing people to change their behaviour, which is not what government should be about. This law is about treating people like children."
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