OXFORDSHIRE could become England’s first ‘smoke free’ county under an ambitious new scheme to cut the number of people smoking cigarettes.

At a meeting of Oxfordshire’s Health Improvement Partnership Board on Thursday, a plan to reduce the number of smokers in the county was discussed, as was the costs of the habit on the public purse.

According to data from the charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) smoking costs the Oxfordshire economy a total of £121.7m each year.

This includes spending on healthcare, workplace productivity, social care and house fires.

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Ansaf Azhar, Oxfordshire County Council’s director of public health said the new plan, called the Oxfordshire Tobacco Control Strategy, represented a ‘step change’ in how smoking was treated in the county.

A report to the improvement board said the government had set a target to reduce the number of people smoking in the UK to five per cent of the population by 2030.

The board was told this would be considered a ‘smoke free’ society because smoking would be so rare. 

The aim for Oxfordshire is to go further and become smoke free on the same guidelines by 2025, becoming the first county in England to do so.

Approximately 10 per cent of the county’s population smokes regularly at the moment, which equates to approximately 54,804 people, according to the report.

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Time to quit? 

Mr Azhar told the board there were deep inequalities in who was smoking in Oxfordshire, with the poorest communities hit the hardest by the health problems and the costs of the habit.

He said the new strategy had a ‘four pillared’ approach to reducing the number of smokers.

These were: carrying on with existing prevention work, regulating and enforcing tobacco products, creating more smoke-free environments, and supporting smokers to quit.

The health improvement board is made up of members from Oxfordshire’s five district councils, the county council, Thames Valley Police, and local health organisations.

Mr Azhar said all of these public bodies needed to be involved to make sure the new approach works.

On March 11, which is national no smoking day, a consultation on the new Tobacco Control Strategy will be launched.

Chair of the health improvement board, county councillor Andrew McHugh said there was another cost associated with smoking which had not been accounted for.

Mr McHugh said: “There is something I think that is missing and that is crime and actually, tobacco is a driver of crime.

“I am a member of the Thames Valley Police panel and a number of smaller shops are being broken into on a regular basis and having £3,000 of cigarettes stolen; cigarettes are the ideal commodity: they are high value and low bulk.”

Mr McHugh added the illicit tobacco market was another crime issue, with some shops and vendors selling contraband tobacco products.

According to the report presented to the board, 2,132 people died from smoking-related causes in Oxfordshire between 2012 and 2017.

A breakdown of the £121.7 million costs of smoking to the Oxfordshire economy includes £25.7 million spent on NHS care.

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A further £7.4 million cost to the local economy comes from paying for social care for the people struck by smoking related illness.

Approximately £86 million of potential wealth is also lost to the local economy because of people out of work with smoking related illnesses, deaths related to the habit, and even smoking breaks at work causing a loss in productivity.

It is also estimated that smoking related house fires cost the Oxfordshire economy £2.7 million.

While ASH does not estimate the costs of littering due to smoking, it said 23 tonnes of waste, or enough to fill 421 wheelie bins, is gathered in the form of cigarette butts in Oxfordshire each year.

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At the meeting there was also discussion of a strategy to reduce the number of pregnant women who smoke, which ties into the wider tobacco strategy.

Last year, there was widespread concern from public health bodies at government cuts which had led local councils to slash their smoking cessation services.

These support services help people to stop smoking through working with council staff.

At the time ASH and trade union the British Medical Association issued warnings about the cuts.