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Smokers with mental health conditions need more help to quit

Professors Louise Howard, Ann McNeill, Matthew Hotopf and Robert Stewart and Dr Lindsay Banham, from King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) are co-authors of a major new report from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) which states that smoking in people with mental health conditions is neglected by the NHS. 

Smoking and mental health finds that much of the substantial lower life expectancy of people with mental disorders relates to smoking, which is often overlooked during the management and treatment of their mental health condition.

One in three of the UK’s 10 million smokers has a mental disorder. Although 20% of the general population smokes, the figure among people with mental health disorders is 40%, and even higher in those with severe mental health problems. Those with mental disorders smoke more cigarettes, are more addicted to nicotine, and find it harder to quit. Many are discouraged from quitting by mistaking the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal for those of their mental disorder. However, stopping smoking improves mental health in the longer term.

Although the prevalence of smoking in the UK has fallen substantially over the past two decades, among people with mental disorders it has barely changed. The report finds that the high prevalence of smoking is likely to account for much of the substantially lower life expectancy, some 10 years or more, of people with mental disorders. Smoking also reduces quality of life, exacerbates poverty, increases drug requirements to control symptoms, and adds to social stigma in this group.

Professor Louise Howard, Professor of women’s mental health, King’s IoP, said: ‘Support for people with mental health problems to stop smoking needs to be prioritised urgently to improve not only the health of this vulnerable group but also the next generation, as smoking is the leading preventable cause of fetal and infant morbidity and mortality - pregnant women with mental health problems are motivated to stop smoking but are more likely to be smoking through pregnancy than other women. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals are missing opportunities to help smokers with mental health problems to quit and much more could be done to encourage uptake of cessation support, or the use of medicinal nicotine to reduce harm from smoking.’

People treated in specialist mental health settings are the most disadvantaged when it comes to the provision of cessation services. While heavy smokers often reduce consumption due to the smoke-free setting, studies have shown that there is a ‘culture’ of smoking in many service settings, and some light or moderate smokers will actually smoke more due to boredom, stress or as a means of socialising in service settings. Healthcare staff are often complicit in maintaining this culture, for example by prioritising supervision of smoking breaks rather than promoting smoke cessation interventions.

Although all NHS mental health trusts in England have now implemented smoke-free policies, lack of monitoring makes it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. Resources allocated to enforcing smoke-free policies, including those that would ensure the provision of adequate behavioural and pharmacological support (such as staff training and provision of NRT), are often lacking, and there are complex barriers to the implementation of effective tobacco dependence treatment in mental healthcare settings. Resources that could be used to help smokers to quit are often channelled primarily into enabling smoking, through the provision of smoking shelters, and staff-supervised smoking breaks.

In addition to the human cost of premature death and disease, the total overall estimated cost to the NHS of diseases caused by smoking in people with mental disorders based on financial year 2009/10 was £719 million, from an annual estimated 2.6 million avoidable hospital admissions, 3.1 million GP consultations and 18.8 million prescriptions. Reductions in smoking prevalence could also save up to £40 million on psychotropic drugs, many of which are required in lower doses among non-smokers.

The report makes the following key recommendations:

•   Smoke-free policy is crucial to promoting smoking cessation in mental health settings.

•   All healthcare settings used by people with mental disorders should therefore be completely smoke free.

•   Smokers with mental disorders using primary and secondary care services, at all levels, should be identified and provided routinely and immediately with   specialist smoking cessation behavioural support, and pharmacotherapy to relieve nicotine withdrawal, promote cessation and reduce harm.

•   Commissioners should require mental health service settings to be smoke free, and to provide support for cessation, temporary abstinence and harm reduction.

•   Service indicators, such as the primary care Quality Outcome Framework (QOF) and Commissioning for Quality and Innovation (CQUIN), should measure and incentivise cessation, not just delivery of advice to quit.

•   All professionals working with or caring for people with mental disorders should be trained in awareness of smoking as an issue, to deliver brief cessation advice, to provide or arrange further support for those who want help to quit and to provide positive (ie non-smoking) role models. Such training should be mandatory.

•   Research funding agencies should consider encouraging and investing in research to address this major cause of ill-health, and health inequalities, in British society.


Professor John Britton, chair of RCP’s Tobacco Advisory Group, said: ‘As the prevalence of smoking in the UK falls, smoking is increasingly becoming the domain of the most disadvantaged in our society, and particularly those with mental disorders. That smoking prevalence has remained so high in this group, especially among those with severe disease, is a damning indictment of medical practice and public health policy. It is time for a radical change in our approach to smoking in mental health care provision, to make non-smoking the norm, and significantly enhance life expectancy and quality among millions of people.’

Cancer Research UK provided additional funding to support the systematic reviews and new data analyses in the report. The executive summary of Smoking and mental health can be downloaded here.

For further information, please contact Louise Pratt, Public Relations and Communications Manager, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, email: or tel: 0044 207 848 5378