Pregnant women are to be offered up to £400 of shopping vouchers to quit smoking, under new rules for the NHS.

Health Chiefs said the measure was proved to be "both effective and cost effective".

The scheme will be policed using biochemical tests to check whether participants have quit.

However, under the new guidance from The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), the vouchers should be given out anyway when testing is too difficult due to the impact of Covid-19.

The scheme has already been tried in some areas, but its adoption by Nice obliges NHS services to consider offering it across the board.

The Royal College of Midwives has previously questioned schemes to incentivise behaviour change through monetary reward.

The guidance, which kicks in when women are referred to an NHS Stop Smoking Service or those run by bodies such as councils, public health teams and charities, said: "Evidence from the UK showed that schemes in which a maximum of around £400 could be gained in vouchers staggered over time (with reductions for each relapse made) were effective and cost effective."

Research suggests that for every 1,000 pregnant women offered vouchers, 177 would stop smoking.

Up-to-date information

The new guidance also said healthcare staff should give clear and up-to-date information on e-cigarettes to people who are interested in using them to stop smoking, but should stress the long-term health effects of them are still uncertain.

It argued that nicotine-containing e-cigarettes have been shown to help people stop smoking and are similarly effective to other stop-smoking interventions such as nicotine replacement therapy.

No nicotine e-cigarettes are currently available on the NHS.

Dr Paul Chrisp, director of Nice’s centre for guidelines, said: "These draft guideline recommendations are a renewed effort to reduce the health burden of smoking and to encourage and support people to give up smoking.

"Smoking continues to take a huge toll on the health of the nation and accounts for approximately half the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest in society.

"It is therefore vitally important that we reduce the level of smoking in this country.

"We know that around 10 per cent of women are known to be smokers at the time of giving birth and, given the significant health effects of smoking on both mothers and babies, it is clear that further efforts are required to encourage this group to give up smoking.

"We need to use every tool in our arsenal to reduce smoking rates, including education, behavioural support, financial incentives, and e-cigarettes if people are interested in using them.

"Combined, we hope that people who smoke will feel enabled to give up tobacco products once and for all."

Guidance welcomed

Dr Jamie Hartmann-Boyce, senior research fellow in health behaviours at the University of Oxford, welcomed the guidance, adding: "A growing body of evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are considerably less harmful than smoking – though not risk-free – and can help people quit smoking.

"Evidence supports providing vouchers to help pregnant people quit smoking, and it is great to see this in the new draft guidance.

"Studies of this type of programme show that people remained smoke-free even after the vouchers or other types of rewards finished. Evidence shows these programmes also work outside of pregnancy. It would be positive to see them used across a range of contexts."