A twice-daily drug, varenicline, (brand name (CHAMPIX), has been given the green light by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), which advises the NHS on which drugs it should supply.
The pill, taken twice a day, also outstrips other anti-smoking agents such as bupropion, Nice analysis showed. A spokesman for Nice said: "Having looked at all the evidence, our independent committee has concluded that varenicline appears to be a good way to help people who want to quit smoking."
He added that the prescription-only drug, which costs Ģ54.60 per pack, should be provided in conjunction with counselling and support. The drug partially stimulates nicotine receptors in the brain, which helps reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms. It also partially blocks nicotine from attaching to these receptors, making smoking less satisfying and so curbing a person's desire to smoke.
A spokesman for Nice said: "Having looked at all the evidence, our independent committee has concluded that varenicline appears to be a good way to help people who want to quit smoking. "The draft guidance also recommends that varenicline should normally be provided in conjunction with counselling and support, but if such support is not available, this should not stop smokers receiving treatment with varenicline.
"Nice follows an open and transparent process which includes genuine consultation so changes in draft recommendations can occur. Stakeholders now have the opportunity to appeal against the draft guidance. Smokers and non-smokers shopping generally seemed to welcome the new pill - even if non-smoking taxpayers have to foot the bill.
Non-smoker Sheldon Byrne, 48, from Marsden, South Shields, said: "There needs to be a balance. "Is it going to be cheaper to give a smoker the drug to help them kick their habit, or give them treatment for lung disease if they continue. If it is more cost effective, then I suppose it is a good idea." Anne French, 61, a retired barmaid from Whiteleas, South Shields, has been a smoker since she was 14.
She said: "I think it is a very good idea. I would certainly think about using it if it has been proven to work. "I did stop smoking once before a few years back - only for a couple of months - then I was back smoking. "If it is made prescription only, it is a good idea. Smokers are also paying tax, so I don't think that matters. Everybody is going to pay tax eventually."
Her 10-year-old grand-daughter Demi-Lee said: "I won't smoke."
Non-smoker Bill Iredale, 41, from Harton, South Shields, said: "If there is not going to be any bad side-effects and it will help wean people off smoking who want to kick it, then I think it is a good idea. "I am a taxpayer, so there is that little bit of negativity. There are both positives and negatives.
"It is positive because it will help people quit, but at the end of the day, it has to be funded. In the long term, it will save peoples' lives. Smoking is like drinking - it's a choice. "The money could go towards helping people with cancer, but then again, smoking is the major cause." Non-smoking barmaid Amber Calbo Mesalles, 19, from Westoe, South Shields, said: "Both my parents are smokers.
"It seems to be a good idea if it works, so it is something I would consider putting forward to my parents. "If it is going to help people kick the habit, it is not going to be so bad on the taxpayer.
"It will be better for everybody, including passive smokers like me."
Smoker Gavin Stephenson, 28, from Hebburn, said: "On the NHS, it will be easier to get for people who really want to stop smoking. I stopped smoking before for a year and a half, but I started again. It is all about willpower.
"There is a lot of people who try to stop and can't do it, so if this is going to help, it is good, especially with the smoking ban coming in and for people who want to go out and not get cravings.
"It can only be better at the end of the day." Non-smoker Daniel Anderson, 18, from Sunderland, said: "Some people are trying to quit but are back smoking a week later. "If this can help, it will give them more confidence in trying to stop and if it does not harm them, it is a good idea, especially for chain smokers.
"We pay tax for just about everything else, so if it works and lots of people stop smoking, it will benefit everyone." But some organizations have criticised Nice's draft approval, pointing out that it has recently turned down other treatments for cancer and Alzheimer's. Anti-smoking group ASH welcomed the move, but Dr Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, questioned Nice's priorities.
"It seems odd that smokers should get this when people with really life-threatening conditions can't get the medicines they need," he said. Others have pointed out that the cost of Champix will be recouped from the NHS's Ģ1.5bn annual bill for treating diseases caused by smoking.