Health: Patching up addicts. Nicotine replacement therapies are to be made available on the NHS.

On Saturday, it will be a fortnight since Emma Strangwayes-Booth last had a cigarette. "I was really ill a few weeks ago," she says. "I had a viral infection of my airways and couldn't breathe. It was really horrible and I'm sure I was iller because I'd been smoking for so long."

Strangwayes-Booth, 26, has been smoking for 13 years and has often thought of giving up. "I always found it really hard," she says, "and all the things you can buy to help seem so expensive." But yesterday she decided to hang the expense and buy her first nicotine replacement patches. They cost her £14.73 for seven.

Strangwayes-Booth is exactly the kind of person the Department of Health hopes will give up smoking for good. Yesterday - No Smoking Day - the public health minister, Yvette Cooper, announced that nicotine replacement therapies (NRT) would soon be available via NHS prescriptions.

The new policy, starting at the end of April, will cost the government between £10m and £40m a year - pennies compared with the £1.7bn that the NHS spends on smokers annually. It means that GPs will be able to prescribe NRT products such as nicotine patches, gum and inhalers to smokers who want to quit. It will be up to individual GPs to decide who gets what, but those recipients will be benefiting financially. One £6 prescription will be enough for two weeks' supply. At the same time, some NRT products will be made available at supermarkets.

Strangwayes-Booth, a receptionist at Goldcrest Films in London, is impressed by the plan. "I think it's a really good idea for the NHS to try to help people stop smoking, and I would definitely go to my doctor to get a prescription," she says. "It's also sensible to be able to buy patches or gum at the same places you can buy cigarettes, rather than have to go to a chemist."

The plans are part of New Labour's heavy emphasis on public health. Its 1998 white paper introduced a multitude of targets, from healthy eating to cutting heart disease, including three aimed at cutting down smoking. A fourth anti-smoking target, aimed particularly at the poorly paid, was added as part of the NHS cancer plan. Its target is a reduction in the number of smokers among manually skilled workers from 32% to 26% by 2010.

"NRT will be available on prescription, because research shows that it doubles the chance of people giving up smoking," says an NHS spokesman. "But it's also because we particularly need to help people in lower-income groups. They tend to smoke more and may find the cost of NRT prohibitive."

But this doubled success rate only applies if you are ready to stop. Taking NRT cannot make you more committed to giving up smoking or transform you into a non-smoker, although it can help end the psychological habit of reaching for a cigarette.

Professor John Britton, a consultant in respiratory medicine at Nottingham city hospital, admits that many smokers simply cannot quit. Over the course of a year, he says, only around a fifth of those who try to give up manage to do so permanently. And that includes those who go by his favoured method - using nicotine replacement therapy and getting behavioural support.

"NRT is not enough on its own. When you're trying to stop smoking, you need to be taught ways of dealing with times when having a cigarette seems like a good idea."

Mary Ostle would second that. A heavy smoker for 35 years, she was getting through 25 to 30 cigarettes a day before deciding to quit last November. But Ostle, a nurse from Middleton St George, near Darlington, says it was preparation that helped her.

"So much more needs to be done for smokers. I managed to give up through determination, by knowing that having a cup of coffee made me want a cigarette, so not drinking coffee any more. But more support is needed. There aren't nearly enough smoking cessation clinics."

She tried a Nicorette Inhalator, but says she only used it around four or five times. "I didn't find it a lot of help," she says. "It was kind of a prop, something to carry around, and it was very expensive. I'm sure many people wonder why they should spend money on that when they can buy a packet of fags for less money and enjoy themselves."

Because of this, she is convinced that the government's plans are exactly what are needed. "I'm sure this will be a success," she says. "But it's about time it happened."

"I've been calling for this for years," says Britton. "NRT is an extremely efficient clinical treatment which saves lives and doesn't cost much money. It hasn't made sense to deny it to those who are addicted. Other addicts get help. Why shouldn't those addicted to nicotine?"

In addition, he says, nicotine replacement therapy is a safe way to try to give up. The treatments work by giving people the nicotine they are addicted to, but in a way that is safe and controlled.

"There's a misconception about the dangers of smoking," he says. "People think that it's nicotine that causes cancer, but that's not true. Cigarettes are dangerous because of the other things in them. It's the tar and other products of the cigarette which cause the harm." In other words, people smoke for the addictive nicotine, but it is not the most damaging substance.

"A cigarette delivers nicotine into your blood and that goes into your brain directly," says Britton. "It's all very quick. The nicotine replacements don't work like that. You take them in through your skin, your mouth or your nose and they have to go right round your body to get to your brain. It's diluted and that's safer."

Strangwayes-Booth is keen to try out her new patch. "I really want to give up smoking this time," she says. "But I haven't been to the pub yet. The patch will be coming with me, when I do, and I really hope it works."

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