Let’s be NICE to smokers

The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) is the body which decides how best to ration health care within the National Health Service (NHS).

Today it has decreed that

Nicotine products should be offered on prescription by GPs and other healthcare professionals to help encourage greater uptake. The cost of this to the NHS is greatly offset by the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses which is around £2.7 billion a year.

That simple financial equation looks pretty convincing. But does it weigh up the reduction in tax revenue from lower tobacco sales? Does it take into account the cost to the nation of ex-smokers living longer? Not only are they likely to require healthcare as they grow older, but they will also draw more state pension. Not so simple, after all.

Furthermore, the decision appears to assume that cost is a barrier to nicotine patch uptake. Yet with cigarettes costing around £7.50 a pack, and patches only £10 – £14 per week smokers already have a clear financial incentive to switch.

Every £1 spent on patches for smokers is £1 less for dialysis machines, nurses’ salaries, life saving drugs and all the other things the NHS budget pays for.

What next? Will the NHS start paying for our groceries if we make healthier food choices?