There are encouraging reports from an independent tobacco control agency set up in an area with the highest adult smoking prevalence in the country

Tobacco is the biggest public health challenge facing the North East of England. Twenty-eight per cent of adults smoke, the highest in the country.

Despite having the consistently highest performing NHS Stop Services in the country (in 2005-6 the region achieved 1,145 four-week quitters per 100,000 population, compared to the national average of 818), the reality is that on their own these services can only contribute a very small reduction in overall prevalence, approximately 0.3 per cent a year.

In light of this, and international best practice, an independent regional office for tobacco control has been established to oversee a comprehensive regional tobacco control programme.

A range of partners have been involved, including the region’s strategic health authority, regional public health group, primary care trusts and other key regional agencies such as the Association of North East Councils. All of the region’s former 16 PCTs committed core funding for the office at an initial level of 0.32 pence per head of population.

A multi-agency strategic advisory panel has overseen the development of Smoke Free North East since last May: its office, strategy and the Fresh campaign for a smoke-free North East.

The comprehensive program has adopted six key strands of action:

  • Reducing exposure to second-hand smoke;
  • Increasing access to stop smoking services;
  • Media and education;
  • Reducing tobacco promotion;
  • Reducing the availability and supply to children and also of counterfeit and smuggled products
  • Tobacco regulation.

Although it is still relatively early days, much has been already been achieved in Smoke Free North East’s first year, with special attention given to the priority of reducing exposure to second-hand smoke.

The Fresh campaign received high levels of local media coverage and was shortlisted in the national finals of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations annual awards. The North East was the largest regional contributor to the consultation on the draft Health Bill and, following a concerted advocacy campaign, more than two-thirds of the region’s MPs voted for comprehensive smoke-free legislation at the crucial Report Stage vote in February 2006.

This unique approach to addressing the biggest cause of health inequalities has also attracted national interest. Durham University is currently leading a three-year National Prevention Research Initiative project entitled ‘Smoke Free North East Office - a Model of Good Practice for the UK?’ and the director of Smoke Free North East has recently been invited to sit on the newly established National Tobacco Program Board.

Ailsa Rutter is director of Fresh - Smoke Free North East and Soumen Sengupta was health improvement director at Newcastle PCT. He is now head of planning and health improvement at West Dumbartonshire Community Health Partnership. For more information on Smoke Free North East go towww.freshne.com