Half a million people with asthma in England face 'impossible choice' between food or life-saving medication

Around half a million people with asthma in England have had to choose between paying for their life-saving asthma medication and other necessities including food, bills, and even school uniforms for their children, according to new research from Asthma UK.1

The charity, which has released the new figures ahead of World Asthma Day on Tuesday 7 May to raise awareness of its Stop Unfair Asthma Prescription Charges campaign, surveyed more than 9,000 people with asthma and found that, of those who pay for prescriptions:

  • More than a third (35%) said they had cut back on food in order to pay for their asthma medication2
  • More than 1 in 5 (21%) said they had to cut back on bills in order to pay for their asthma medication3
  • 4% - which equates to around 100,000 people with asthma - said they had to cut back on buying their children’s school uniforms.4
  • Those on low incomes were worst affected with more than half having to cut back on food and more than a third having to cut back on bills5

Previous research from Asthma UK found that more than half (57%) of people with asthma who pay for their medication have skipped taking it because of the cost– an estimated 1.3 million people.

Those on low incomes under £20,000, but who are not eligible for benefits are hardest hit with 9 in 10 (92%) saying they struggled to afford their prescriptions.

Asthma UK says it is unfair that people with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions for life-saving medication, especially as people with other long-term conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy, and those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get free prescriptions.

The charity says the 50-year-old law on prescription charges is out of date and that because asthma is a growing problem, the government needs to take action to help people with asthma to stay well and out of hospital.

Asthma UK is urging people with asthma, and anyone else concerned about the unfairness of prescription charges, to join its Stop Unfair Asthma Prescription Charges campaign and sign its petition to put pressure on the Government to remove prescription charges for people with asthma.

More than 65,000 people have already signed the petition and the campaign has had backing from over 50 MPs.

Tenesha Robertson, 36, is a Care Co-ordinator and lives in North West London. She knows first-hand the difficult choices people with asthma need to make to afford their medication.

“Being a single mum of three children means that money can sometimes be tight. Last year, paying for my asthma prescriptions forced me to delay paying my bills and even cut back on heating over the winter. I couldn’t afford to pay for gas and electricity and my medication. 

"There have even been times where I've had to resort to using my son’s inhaler when I’ve been on the brink of an asthma attack because I can't afford to replace my own inhalers. I felt so guilty, but I’d already had so much time off work because of my asthma, I couldn’t risk becoming ill again.  

"It’s really unfair that people with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions. Asthma is a serious condition and can be fatal.  I shouldn’t have to be put in the impossible position of having to choose whether I should buy lifesaving medication or heating my home.”

People with asthma often need to take their preventer inhaler every day for their entire lifetime. They also need their reliever inhaler to help them if their asthma symptoms flare up or if they are having an asthma attack. Many also need other prescriptions such as allergy medication to prevent them from having an asthma attack or antibiotics to treat a chest infection.

The Government has suggested people with asthma get a pre-payment certificate (PPC) - a season ticket that allows people to have as many prescriptions as they need within a time period for a set cost.

However, almost half of those on low incomes (42%) and a quarter of all people with asthma (24%) who paid for their prescriptions said they couldn’t afford a PPC6.

As asthma is triggered by unpredictable external factors such as a high pollen season, cold weather or pollution, more than a quarter of people with asthma said they couldn’t predict if the certificate would even save them money over the course of the year.7  

Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK says:

“The stark reality is that hundreds of thousands of people with asthma are faced with an impossible choice - cut back on essentials like food and bills or cut back on the medication that could save their life.

“People with asthma are struggling to pay for their prescriptions and around a million are cutting back on taking their medication because of the cost. This puts them at risk of being hospitalised or even dying from an asthma attack.

“Asthma is life-long and life-threatening condition which means people may have to take medicine for most of their working life. It is unacceptable that those with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions, especially as people with some other long-term conditions don’t have to. No one should have to pay to breathe.

“As a simple sign of solidarity this World Asthma Day we are urging everyone to   join our Stop Unfair Asthma Prescription Charges campaign. With enough signatures, we hope to put pressure on the Government to remove prescription charges for people with asthma.”


To sign the petition visit: www.asthma.org.uk/prescriptioncharges


The number of adults with a lifetime diagnosis of asthma in the UK is increasing.8 The UK death rate from asthma has increased 20% in the last five years and is among the worst in Europe.9


Every year, asthma costs the NHS £297 million in hospital admissions and GP appointments.10 Asthma UK says if the Government helps people to manage their asthma by removing barriers such as prescription charges it could help people avoid asthma attacks. This could reduce hospital admissions, A&E attendances and GP appointments, which are expensive for the NHS.


People with other long-term conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy and hyperthyroidism get free prescriptions.11 In 2009, the law was amended so that people with cancer were also entitled to free prescriptions for medication needed to treat their cancer or the effects of it. The Government at the time promised to remove the charges for long term conditions including asthma but this has never happened. Prescription charges have been scrapped in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.



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Notes to editors:


For more information or interview requests contact:

Emma Warren, Senior Media Officer, ewarren@asthma.org.uk , 0207 786 4982 or contact the media team on mediaoffice@asthma.org.uk, 0207 786 4949 

For out of hours enquiries contact: 07951 721393


1.      Paying to breathe: Why unfair asthma prescription charges must be stopped. We surveyed 9001 people for three weeks in November 2018 through an online survey. Of those, 7465 said they were paying for their asthma medication. Of those, 35% (2,577/7,465) said that they had, at times, needed to cut back on food to be able to pay for their asthma medication. 21% (1,577/7,465) of people said that they had cut back on bills. To estimate that more than half a million people with asthma had to cut back on bills or food over asthma medication, we applied the proportion of people who had to cut back on food and applied it to the population of people with asthma paying for their prescriptions (2.3 million) to get 805,000. Using the same process, the estimated number of people who had to cut back on bills is 483,000.

2.      Ibid

3.      Ibid

4.      To estimate that around a quarter of a million parents with asthma said they had to cut back on their school uniforms because of the cost of medicine we applied the proportion from the survey who said this (4%) and applied it to the number of people with asthma in England who pay for their prescriptions (2.3 million) to get 92,000.

5.      Ibid

6.      Ibid

7.      Ibid

8.  The number of adults with a lifetime asthma diagnosis continues to rise. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3072257/#!po=4.16667>


9. To calculate asthma death rates for each country, we looked at the number of deaths for each country and the population of each country to work out a rate of deaths per 100,000. This is because countries are of different population sizes, so the raw numbers wouldn’t be reflective of the true situation.

The data sets are from 2011 – 2015 as these are the most recent data sets for all the countries, to allow accurate comparison.

Death numbers: Eurostat – Table name: ‘Causes of death - deaths by country of residence and occurrence’

Population data: Eurostat – Table name: ‘Population on 1 January by age and sex’

Prevalence data: ERS Whitebook – Adult chapterChildren chapter

You can find the data tables at this link: 

The rate of asthma deaths per 100,000 in 2011 in the UK was 1.83 and in 2015 was 2.21, a 21% increase.

10. The epidemiology, healthcare and societal burden and costs of asthma in the UK and its member nations: analyses of standalone and linked national databases, Mome Mukherjee, Andrew Stoddart, Gupta Ramyani, Bright I Nwaru, Angela Farr, Martin Heaven,  BMC Medicine, 29 August 2016, . https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-016-0657-8


11. People can apply for a medical exemption certificate if they have any of the following conditions:

  • A permanent fistula (for example, a caecostomy, colostomy, laryngostomy or ileostomy) requiring continuous surgical dressing or requiring an appliance
  • A form of hypoadrenalism (for example, Addison's disease) for which specific substitution therapy is essential
  • Diabetes insipidus or other forms of hypopituitarism
  • Diabetes mellitus, except where treatment is by diet alone
  • Hypoparathyroidism
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Myxoedema (hypothyroidism requiring thyroid hormone replacement)
  • Epilepsy requiring continuous anticonvulsive therapy
  • A continuing physical disability that means the person can't go out without the help of another person – temporary disabilities don't count, even if they last for several months
  • People undergoing treatment for cancer including the effects of cancer, or the effects of current or previous cancer treatment