March 14th is No Smoking Day and as Chief Medical Officer, I must stress how important it is to take every opportunity to improve your chances of living a long and healthy life.
We know most smokers would really like to stop, but find it hard. So in this Olympic year, No Smoking Day is encouraging smokers to 'Take the Leap' and give it a go, to think about their physical health and aspire to a smoke free future.
Quitting smoking can almost immediately improve your health. Within 20 minutes of your last cigarette, your blood pressure and pulse return to normal. After 24 hours, carbon monoxide is out of your body and your lungs start to clear themselves. After three days, you will have more energy and your breathing will become easier. One year after giving up, your risk of suffering a heart attack is reduced by half.
The Welsh Government is keen to support people who want to quit, and perhaps more importantly, we are trying to stop young people from taking up the habit in the first place. We have already taken a number of measures to discourage children from starting smoking, such as the ASSIST peer support programme in schools, which is yielding good results.
Encouragingly, weekly smoking levels among adolescents have been dropping gradually. In 2010, only 3 per cent of 13-14 year old boys and 6 per cent of 13-14 year old girls reported smoking weekly and there has been a significant reduction in the prevalence of smoking among both girls and boys aged 15-16 years old since 1998. Perhaps it's becoming less 'cool' for young people to smoke.
On a wider scale, we are taking steps to implement regulations in Wales to ban the display of tobacco products at point of sale, which will come into force in large stores by December 2012. A ban on the sale of tobacco from vending machines has already been introduced because we recognised this as a major source of cigarettes for under-age smokers.
These measures will restrict access to and discourage the use of tobacco products by young people.
The Welsh Government is also committed to taking part in a UK wide consultation in the Spring on whether plain packaging of tobacco products would have the potential to bring about a significant public health benefit.
We will work closely with colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure it meets the Welsh Government's commitment to address the issues of cost, attraction and access to tobacco products, especially for young people.
It is not just the individual's choice we're taking into consideration either. There is strong public support for a ban on smoking in cars carrying children. Last month, we launched a campaign called Fresh Start Wales, to encourage parents and carers to think about the damage they're doing to their young passengers and act responsibly. Fresh Start will run for three years and if evidence shows there has not been a marked reduction in our children's exposure to second-hand smoke, the Health Minister has said she will consider legislation.
We aim to reduce the number of people who smoke to 16% by 2020 with an ultimate vision of a smoke-free society for Wales, in which the harm from tobacco is completely eradicated. This is an ambitious target but we have seen Australia and California achieve similar reductions in smoking prevalence. Wales' first Tobacco Control Action Plan is a major step forward in achieving this and an implementation board has been set up to take this forward.
The Action Plan highlights the importance of supporting smokers who want to quit. Later this year we will commission an independent review of all smoking cessation activity in Wales. This should identify the improvements that need to be made to existing cessation services. Easy access to effective, appropriate resources will be vital if the Plan's 16% smoking target is to be achieved.
No-one said kicking the habit is easy. Giving up can be tricky, especially if you have been smoking for a long time. However, one in four adults in Wales is an ex-smoker - so it can be done! In line with the Olympic principles, join the competition on the field and 'Take the Leap' to a healthy smoke free life.
Here are some tips to help you:
- Firstly, be sure that you want to stop and know the reasons why. This will help you prepare and stick to it.
- Get professional help - you don't have to rely on willpower alone. You are more likely to successfully quit if you use smoking cessation services. Stop Smoking Wales (0800 085 2219) can provide one-to-one or group support.
- Prepare yourself - nicotine withdrawal may make you restless or irritable. The first few days may be difficult but people usually start to feel better after the third or fourth day.
- Many people turn to snacking in place of cigarettes so make sure you fill the fridge with healthy treats so that you avoid gaining weight.
You will notice the benefits to your health - and your pocket - very soon.