Smoking and the silent killer

More than a million people in the UK could be living with a serious vascular condition that can lead to leg amputation or a fatal heart attack, says the British Heart Foundation. And as many as 90 percent are smokers or ex-smokers.

According to the charity, peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a silent and largely unknown killer in the UK. And while there are nearly half a million registered people with PAD in this country, BHF experts reckon the real number could be twice as high.

Nine out of every 10 people who develop PAD currently smoke or have smoked in the past, the experts claim. But many are aware of the risk, since approximately half of all people with PAD show no symptoms until they suffer a heart attack or stroke.

Giving up smoking, says the charity, is the best way to reduce your risk of this potentially life-threatening disease.

What is PAD?

Caused by a build-up of fatty deposits in the walls of the leg arteries, PAD restricts blood supply to the leg muscles. If PAD is left untreated, the leg tissue may begin to die, causing gangrene and – in its most severe form – critical limb ischaemia (CLI). According to the BHF, 30 percent of CLI cases result in amputation.

The process of fatty deposit build-up is called atherosclerosis, which can be caused by inhaling harmful chemicals found in tobacco. The charity adds that people who have PAD also have a much higher risk of developing other serious forms of cardiovascular disease – such as heart attack and stroke – because blood vessels elsewhere in the body are also likely to be affected.

“Peripheral arterial disease can lead to horrific consequences and the silent nature of the condition means that opportunities to diagnose and treat it are often missed,” says BHF associate medical director, Dr Mike Knapton.

“We do know that stopping smoking is the single most effective way of reducing your risk of developing this potentially deadly disease,” he adds. “And with No Smoking Day on March 9, now is a great time to start your quitting journey.”

Severe pain

Sixty-one-year-old Brian Shead from Edenbridge in Kent had surgery in 2011 and 2015 to treat CLI in both of his legs, and had a stent fitted in his left leg as a result. Brian has smoked since he was 13 years old, and at one point was smoking 30-40 cigarettes a day. Thanks to a smoking cessation group, he’s now down to 10 a day and is preparing to make a final quit attempt this No Smoking Day.

“The pain in my legs started off small and gradually got worse and worse until I could barely walk,” says Brian. “I had no idea that my smoking habit was causing it, and when I realised how serious my condition was, I cut down smoking immediately.

“Due to the severity of my condition, and the number of years I smoked, I had to have surgery on both my legs. It’s so important that people understand the devastating effect smoking can have. I was lucky and didn’t have to have an amputation, but many aren’t. I have cut down since my surgery, which I am really proud of, and I am making a quit attempt to stop for good on No Smoking Day.”

9,000 amputations a year

According to the BHF there are 10,000 admissions to hospital every week in the UK for diseases that are directly caused by smoking, one of which is PAD.

“This dangerous disease very often goes undiagnosed, and although there are half a million people in the UK officially suffering with PAD, I estimate there could be over one million living with the condition,” says Mr Bijan Modarai, BHF intermediate fellow and reader/consultant in vascular surgery at Kings’ College London/St Thomas’ Hospital. According to Mr Modarai, around 30,000 UK adults have the most severe form of PAD, resulting in at least 9,000 amputations every year.

“I see patients – the vast majority of whom are smokers – repeatedly having to go through painful surgery to ease the suffering of PAD and CLI,” he explains.

“It is crucial that we use opportunities like No Smoking Day to raise awareness of the dangers of this cruel disease in order to inspire people to quit smoking and prevent them from putting themselves at risk in the first place.”

Speak to your pharmacist today to find out about the help and support that’s available at your local Careway pharmacy with giving up smoking. Find your nearest participating pharmacy at


Meanwhile, to get involved in No Smoking Day or to receive information and support on stopping smoking visit Join the conversation on Twitter by following @NoSmokingDay and using the hashtag #NoSmokingDay.