Postcode Lottery Fight for Anti-Smoking Drug; SPECIAL REPORT

Article excerpt

MIDLAND smokers desperate to kick the habit are being denied a new wonder-drug proven to be twice as effective as nicotine patches.

Zyban is licensed for use on the NHS, but at least one Midland health authority is instructing GPs not to prescribe it until more information about the drug is available.

And others vary in their policy, resulting in a postcode lottery across the region.

A two-month course of the drug costs pounds 80, considered too expensive by some GPs.

But in one trial, Zyban, which became available on prescription at the start of the summer, doubled the cessation rate compared with nicotine patches.

The patches led to 15 per cent of smokers giving up, whilst the new drug had a 30 per cent success rate.

Medical experts say the drug, which cuts the craving for a cigarette by altering the brain's chemical balance, is only truly effective when used in combination with intensive counselling at smoking cessation clinics.

A Sunday Mercury survey has revealed wide variations in prescribing directives across Midland health authorities.

Birmingham smokers are able to get Zyban without restriction because the health authority has given the drug its backing.

But doctors in North Staffordshire are being advised against prescribing the drug until more information becomes available.

'It may not be appropriate treatment for everyone and we are advising GPs to defer for the moment,' a spokeswoman said.

Even in areas of the Midlands where extensive therapeutic support is available, health bosses are still urging caution.

In Walsall - a health action zone which has already attracted government funding for smoking cessation - doctors are being advised to prescribe nicotine replacement therapy first.

The area has 35 clinics in GP surgeries, health centres and pharmacies which could offer support to smokers on Zyban.

But Nigel Barnes, pharmaceutical adviser for Walsall Health Authority, said: 'We have issued advice to GPs based on present information. …