'Unfair' prescription charges putting more than a million people at risk of a life-threatening asthma attack

Asthma UK reveals people with asthma are rationing their medication due to prescription costs and it’s causing asthma attacks and hospital admissions

More than a million people in England are having to ‘pay to breathe’ and are at risk of having a life-threatening asthma attack because they are struggling to pay for their asthma prescriptions, according to a new report by Asthma UK.

The leading charity, which is launching a new campaign to stop unfair asthma prescription charges, has revealed today that of the 2.3 million people in England with asthma who have to pay for prescriptions,1 more than three quarters (76%) say they struggle to afford them.2

Paying to breathe: Why unfair asthma prescription charges must be stopped, which includes research with over 9,000 people with asthma in England, reveals 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.3
  • Of these, a quarter - an estimated 300,000 - said it led to an asthma attack4
  • More than 1 in 10 said they had needed hospital treatment5
  • 9 in 10 of those who are on a low income struggled to pay for their medication6
  • 7 in 10 of those who struggled to pay were ‘financially vulnerable’, on a zero hours contract, in debt or with no savings7
  • On average, asthma prescriptions cost more than £100 per year but thousands of people may be paying more than £400 per year8

Asthma is a life-threatening and life-long condition. To stay well, 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.

Asthma UK says it is unfair that people with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions to stay alive, 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 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.

Asthma UK 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.

The number of adults with a lifetime diagnosis of asthma in the UK is increasing.9 The UK death rate from asthma has increased 20% in the last five years and is among the worst in Europe.10

Every year, asthma costs the NHS £297 million in hospital admissions and GP appointments.11 Asthma UK says if the Government helps people to manage their asthma by removing barriers such as prescription costs 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.12 In 2008, 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 previous Labour Government promised to remove charges for asthma and other long-term conditions but this was not delivered and was dropped by the coalition Government in 2010.

Cathy Worboys, 49, a personal assistant from Ware in Hertfordshire says her 19-year-old daughter Holly, who died in January 2016 from an asthma attack, would still be alive today if prescription charges hadn’t discouraged her taking her asthma medication regularly.

“Holly worked as a waitress and was on a low income. She found it difficult to pay for her asthma medicine so me and her boyfriend helped where we could. She appeared to have mild asthma but one day she had a terrible asthma attack out of the blue.

“As Holly only had one dose of medicine left in her inhaler, even as she struggled to breathe she didn’t want to take it, saying she’d save it for when she really needed it.

“The horrific irony is that was the moment Holly really did need it. Within minutes of having her asthma attack, Holly fell unconscious and died before she got to hospital.

“It is grossly unfair that people with asthma have to pay for medicine they need for their entire life just to stay alive. I don’t want anyone else to go through what we have. If the cost of asthma medicine is preventing people from taking it, the Government should do everything it can to help people stay well.”

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

“It is unfair that millions of people with asthma are getting a raw deal, paying unfair costs for their medicine just to stay well. No one should have to pay to breathe.

“Asthma is a serious condition that kills three people every day in the UK and the best way for people to stay well is to take their life-saving medication, often for their entire life.

“When people are struggling financially they may feel they simply cannot afford to pay for the medication. By not taking it, they are at risk of being hospitalised or even dying from an asthma attack.

“We are urging everyone who thinks it’s unfair to join our Stop Unfair Asthma Prescription Charges campaign and sign our petition to urge the Government to remove prescription charges for people with asthma.”

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

Ends –

Emma Warren, Senior Media Officer, Asthma UK

Landline: 0207 786 4982

OOO: 07951 721 393


Notes to editors:

1. 4. 5 million people in England have asthma. An estimated half of people (52%)with asthma have to pay for their prescriptions, according to Asthma UK’s Annual Asthma Survey 2016, which is 2.34 million

2.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. We asked “Do you find it difficult to afford your prescriptions"?  75.8% said they struggled to pay sometimes or always for their medication.

3. Ibid. We asked “have you ever taken less of/been sparing with your medicine or not taken it as regularly as you should have because of the cost?”. To estimate how manypeople were sparing with their medication, we applied the proportion (57.1%) to the number of people who pay for their medication (2.34 million) to get 1,336,140

4. Ibid. 24.1% said they suffered from an asthma attack after being sparing with their medication because of the cost. We applied this proportion (24.1%) to the number of people who were sparing with their medication because of the cost (1,336,140) to get (322,010)

5. Ibid.13.2% said they had needed emergency treatment because they had been sparing with their asthma medication

6. Ibid. Of those with an income below £20,000, 92.4% struggled to pay for their medication

7. Vulnerable characteristics included, in the last 12 months: zero hours contract, unemployed, used overdraft, no savings and used a payday loan. These vulnerable characteristics came from the Financial Lives Survey 2017  https://www.fca.org.uk/news/press-releases/fca-reveals-findings-from-first-financial-lives-survey

8. Ibid. 1.6% of people who paid for their prescriptions said they paid £422 every year for their prescriptions

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

10. 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.

11. 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

12. 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


About Asthma UK:

  • In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma: 1.1 million children (1 in 11) and 4.3 million adults (1 in 12).
  • Every day, the lives of three families are devastated by the death of a loved one to an asthma attack, and tragically two thirds of these deaths are preventable.
  • Every ten seconds someone in the UK has an asthma attack.
  • Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life threatening asthma attack.
  • The Asthma UK Helpline is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 0300 222 5800.
  • For more information about asthma please visit www.asthma.org.uk