We can’t breathe easy, but it’s improving

Sir Alex Ferguson is the kind of role model we will listen to as the face and vo ice of Scotland’s lung cancer campaign, says James Cant
Many of us will have spent time in smoke-filled homes, pubs and workplaces. Picture: Getty ImagesMany of us will have spent time in smoke-filled homes, pubs and workplaces. Picture: Getty Images
Many of us will have spent time in smoke-filled homes, pubs and workplaces. Picture: Getty Images

Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements in football have long been recognised. He has achieved international renown but has never lost an ounce of his Scottishness, nor forgotten the community that forged him. Now, by agreeing to be the face of the Scottish Government’s new lung cancer campaign, Sir Alex Ferguson should be seen as a true life-saver.

Far too often, lung cancer is diagnosed when it’s too late to offer significant treatment. Scotland has world-class respiratory clinicians and many new treatments have emerged in recent years. But they will be of no use if you have not been diagnosed. So listen to Sir Alex – and listen to your breathing and your cough. If it’s changing, or you notice blood when you cough, get it checked. ASAP.

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Remember, you don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer. As many as one in five cases are people who have never smoked or who quit some time ago. Many of us will have spent time in smoke-filled homes, pubs and workplaces over years or might have been exposed to damaging particles through our work. We all need to be aware.

Sir Alex’s contribution also gives us the chance to take a wider look at our respiratory health. Most of us are fortunate enough to be born with a decent set of lungs. Treat them well and they should last a lifetime. But Scots have had a troubled relationship with their lungs. Our climate isn’t particularly conducive to good lung health and the heavy industries we relied upon for so long took a heavy toll on the physical well-being of Scottish workers, nowhere more so than in their respiratory health.

Add our nation’s longstanding relationship with tobacco, a formerly mainly male preserve but one which women increasingly joined from the 1960s onwards with a devastating legacy for their respiratory health. Over the last ten to 20 years, lung cancer rates in women have grown steadily to the point of matching those for men.

Reasons for optimism

But there are many reasons for optimism. Scotland is a world leader in tobacco control, as one of the first nations to introduce legislation to ban smoking in public places. This had a swift and significant impact with emergency admissions to hospital associated with exposure to SHS (Second Hand Smoke) falling by almost a fifth.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that children and young people across Scotland continue to be exposed to SHS at home and in the car on a daily basis, at levels which would match those found in the smokiest pubs of old. We also need to address the lethal danger posed by the fact that on average, 40 children a day in Scotland will become smokers. They represent the “cannon fodder” the tobacco industry needs to sustain its business model as so many existing customers die as a result of tobacco use. It’s difficult to imagine any other legitimate business that would be tolerated in the knowledge that proper use of its product would end up killing one in two customers at huge cost to the consumer, NHS and public finances.

The human cost of preventable lung disease is appalling. The financial cost is unsustainable for the Scottish economy. Thankfully help is at hand as the Scottish Government and MSPs are about to embark on an exciting year of new tobacco control measures to help finally break the chain and offer today’s young Scots the prospect of lung health that lasts a lifetime rather than three or four decades.

The Scottish Government has committed to introducing Standardised Packaging for tobacco products as part of its 2014-15 legislative programme. This will cut off big tobacco’s most important promotional mechanism for enticing young people to take up the habit. We know how important this is to big tobacco because of the sheer scale of money and advertising ingenuity they invest in packaging design. And we know how much this scares them having seen the dirty campaign they waged to try to prevent it happening in Australia. They failed to bully Australia and they’ll be in for a fright if they try to bully Scotland.

Promoting and protecting lung health

2014 should also witness the introduction of a private members bill that will make it illegal to smoke in a vehicle when someone under 16 is present. This is a sensible move and it’s telling how strongly supported this measure is among smokers themselves.

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This is a crucial element in the work of the British Lung Foundation. We’re not here to judge or lecture. We’re here to help promote and protect lung health and to support people whose lungs are “broken”. Many of the people we support have been smokers. Some still are. What’s most telling for me is that they often have the strongest voice and greatest determination to make sure that their children and grandchildren don’t share that same experience of debilitation caused by lung disease.

So let’s imagine Sir Alex offering us all a wee quiet word of encouragement to take better care of our own lungs – and work together to make sure our children enjoy the life-giving gift of breath.

• James Cant is head of the British Lung Foundation Scotland www.blf.org.uk/scotland