Smokers are at significantly greater risk of losing their sight than non-smokers, yet awareness of eye damage from smoking is worryingly low according to the Public Health Agency.
Fewer than 10% of smokers realise that smoking can affect their eye health.
This compares with 92% associating smoking with lung cancer and 88% identifying a link between smoking and the risk of heart disease.
To coincide with World Sight Day, the PHA is highlighting the damage that smokers could be doing to their eyes and urging them to stop smoking.
Dr Jackie McCall, Consultant in Public Health at the PHA, said: “Smoking is the single greatest cause of preventable illness, premature death and health inequality throughout Northern Ireland.
“Not only does smoking increase your risk of developing smoking-related illnesses such as coronary heart disease, stroke and many cancers, but it can significantly increase your risk of sight loss and poor vision.
“Toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage the delicate surface and the internal structure of the eye. It can damage blood vessels inside the eye and interfere with tear production and the health of the cornea. This can lead to an increased risk of many eye conditions including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), nuclear cataracts, thyroid eye disease, dry eye and poor colour vision.
“It is not as simple as saying that by stopping smoking you will see your eye health improve. It’s more that if you do choose to smoke, you are seriously adding to the risk that your eyesight could be affected as you grow older and sadly the point at which you will notice the change in your vision is usually after the damage has been done, therefore we are urging smokers to think seriously about their vision and use it as an incentive to give up smoking.
“The sooner you give up, the sooner you will halt the damage being caused to your eyes by smoking.”
Gerry Bleakney, Strategic Lead for Tobacco Control with the PHA, said: “Stopping smoking is the single most important thing you can do for your health, and the good news is that it’s never too late to quit. Quitting smoking at any age can reduce your risk of developing many sight-threatening eye conditions not to mention the benefits of a healthier lifestyle and, ultimately, a healthier body.
“In Northern Ireland there are over 600 free stop smoking specialist services located in pharmacies, GP surgeries, hospitals, communities and workplaces that can help with your quit attempt.”
For more information and useful tips to stop smoking visit the PHA’s ‘Want 2 Stop’ website at www.want2stop.info and order a ‘Quit Kit’ free of charge. Alternatively contact the Smokers’ Helpline on 0808 812 8008.
Gerry added: “If you quit and then relapse, accept it, work out why it happened, and focus on how you can avoid it in the future. It takes several efforts for many people to quit for good, but if you are determined, you will do it.
“Last year thousands of people decided to stop using the PHA’s Stop Smoking Services, and many others did so on their own. ‘Be prepared’ is the motto for success.”
Regular eye examinations should form part of everyone’s health routine as looking after your eyes is just as important as looking after the rest of your body.
Raymond Curran, Head of General Ophthalmic Services at Health and Social Care Board welcomed the ramping up of awareness on this significant day, and said: “HSCB are pleased to be associated with this important initiative. It is now known that smokers are four times more likely to develop macular degeneration, and it is never too late to quit.”
If you do notice a change to your sight, never dismiss it as ‘just part of getting older’ – visit your local optometrist immediately.
The Health and Social Care Board commissions NHS eye examinations from over 260 easily-accessible registered optometry practices in Northern Ireland.
For information on who is eligible for an NHS eye examination please see www.hscbusiness.hscni.net/services/1778.htm