Rapid innovation by local councils helped smokers quit during pandemic

07 January 2021

Rapid innovation by local councils helped smokers quit during pandemic

In normal times smokers seeking help to quit would be able to meet face-to-face with a trained professional to get counselling and stop smoking medications like nicotine replacement therapy. However, from one day to the next, on March 23rd 2020 this became impossible. A new report published today [Thursday 7th January] by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and Cancer Research UK finds that instead of shutting up shop, local authority stop smoking service staff worked from home supporting smokers over the phone and online [1].

This was the seventh annual report [2] looking at local tobacco control and smoking cessation services in England, providing a vital snapshot of how local authorities across England are working towards the national ambition to be smoke-free by 2030 during the COVID-19 pandemic. As one respondent highlighted [1]:

“GPs were focusing on other things, vape shops were closed, and pharmacists were prioritising other work.”

Alison Cox, Director of Prevention at Cancer Research UK, which funded the study, said:

“Pandemic or not, stopping smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. Even after a cancer diagnosis, quitting can improve your outlook and make treatment more effective. Throughout 2020, local authorities continued to provide much-needed support to help people quit – yet the UK Government rewarded such efforts with a freeze to the public health budget. Councils desperately need more, and longer-term, funding to deliver these vital services.”

The report shows that councils were able to innovate in many ways to address gaps in support, from using volunteers to get medication to patients, to ensuring support reached the most vulnerable by including information about services in emergency food parcels.

A key challenge faced by services included getting medication to people, particularly those who were shielding. Councils stepped up to this challenge, making arrangements with online pharmacies and even hand-delivering medication to ensure people got the support they needed.

One common area of innovation was developing targeted support for vulnerable populations. Three fifths of local authorities made special provisions for vulnerable smokers, including those who were homeless and people who were shielding.

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council and Chair of the Local Government Association Community Wellbeing Board, said:

“As this report highlights, council public health teams have worked closely with local charities and community groups to rapidly adapt services and reach out to residents who are most vulnerable to help them give up smoking and protect them from the worst effects of COVID-19.

“We must continue to support people to give up smoking altogether, through the current crisis and beyond, if we are to save lives in the immediate and longer-term.

“Councils can help the Government to achieve its ambition of eliminating smoking in England by 2030, through their tobacco control and other public health and support services. However, they need certainty over their long-term funding to help do so.”

Another big problem for services was the decline in referrals from the NHS as the health service retreated to manage the pandemic. Here too, councils found creative solutions. These included engaging GP practices to pro-actively text patients with a history of smoking, and reaching out to smokers through a local housing provider as part of efforts to reduce secondhand smoke exposure as we all spent more time inside.

Dr Jeanelle De Gruchy, President of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said:

COVID-19 makes addressing the preventable causes of ill health, with a particular focus on tackling health inequalities, more urgent than ever. This report is therefore a timely reminder of the high-quality services and campaigns that local public health teams lead that support people to quit smoking and improve their health and wellbeing.

Many councils also developed strong public communication strategies to motivate smokers to quit as well as encouraging them to use their local services. In Sheffield, an integrated campaign reaching out to smokers and specifically targeting vulnerable residents who were shielding was launched, delivered using social marketing and working with other community partners.

Hazel Cheeseman, Director of Policy at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said:

“Our report demonstrates the ambition and commitment of councils to improving the health of their communities. During the toughest year for public health in our lifetime councils rose to the challenge, going above and beyond to provide vital support to those wanting to quit smoking. Councils deserve our praise, but they also deserve more funding for public health from Government after years of cuts.”



[1] Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK). Stepping up: The response of stop smoking services in England to the COVID-19 pandemic. January 2021.

[2] For previous reports go to https://ash.org.uk/local-resources/annual-local-authority-tobacco-control-report/