PROGRESS in beating ailments caused by smoking and obesity is under threat as spending on public health campaigns has dropped to a record low, it has been warned.

Figures show spending on public information campaigns has fallen by two-thirds since 2010 to just over £1 million, the lowest on record.

Since 2004, spending generally remained about £3m a year, but by 2016 the costs had fallen below £2m for the first time, followed by a further fall of £500,000 last year.

But experts have warned hard-hitting campaigns are vital in tackling some of the country’s worst health crises and the cash cuts could undermine efforts to beat smoking and obesity.

Gregor McNie, Cancer Research UK’s head of external affairs in Scotland, said: “Public awareness campaigns are important and do work.

“It’s concerning that investment in them appears to have fallen significantly.

“We know past campaigns to encourage people to use smoking cessation services have worked, as have those making people more aware of symptoms to go to their doctor with.

“They are a vital component in our efforts to tackle cancer in Scotland and we really must see them funded accordingly.”

The figures come after the success of public health campaigns such as one featuring former Manchester United and Aberdeen manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

He fronted the Scottish Government’s Detect Cancer Early campaign to raise awareness of lung cancer after both of his parents died of the disease while in their mid-60s.

The hard-hitting advert featured Sir Alex telling viewers: “Both my parents died of lung cancer. But these days lung cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence. If you’re worried about a change to you cough - see your GP as soon as possible. Don’t get scared, get checked.”

The campaign saw an increase in the public reporting of symptoms to GPs.

Hard-hitting anti-smoking campaigns have also been proven to work. Research from University College London in 2013 showed a direct link between the amount of money spent on mass media campaigns to stop smoking and the number of people attempting to quit.

The research concluded mass media campaigns “play an important role in maximising quitting activity”.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s cancer prevention expert, said: “These figures are disappointing. Well-designed mass media campaigns that either raise people’s awareness of the risks of smoking and second-hand smoke or alternatively prompt people to quit by offering helplines and resources.

“The Scottish Government is missing a trick, it’s a missed opportunity.

“If you spend on health, in terms of services, and people don’t know they’re there or they don’t know where to access information and support, they may not use them.

“Mass media is a really essential part of that, and to not be investing in those campaigns, which are not that expensive when you compare them to the cost of treating somebody, is very unfortunate.”

Lung cancer is one of the most common causes of death in Scotland, claiming the lives of 4,000 people last year.

Earlier this year it was reported the number of smokers in Scotland who tried to quit fell to its lowest since records began. This came as the

Scottish Government cut funding into schemes designed to help.

Scottish shadow health secretary Miles Briggs said: “The fact we have seen such a significant decrease in public health information is concerning, given the health inequalities

that are increasing under this SNP Government.

“I hope what we have not seen ministers raiding the public health information budget to make up for their financial mismanagement of the NHS, which saw ministers having to write off £150m in debt.

“Lung cancer still kills thousands of Scots every year, while people from deprived areas remain considerably more likely to smoke than those from wealthier parts.”

Scotland has the widest life expectancy inequalities in Western Europe.

Men born in the most deprived areas of Scotland can expect to live about 10.5 years less than those in the more affluent ones.

In addition to smoking, one of the issues greatly affecting those in poorer areas is obesity.

Last year a report by NHS Scotland found men and women in the most deprived areas of the country are more likely to be obese than those in the least deprived.

Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “Ignorance is not bliss, but that’s what you get if you downgrade your campaigning.

“Scotland has an obesity problem that demands constant public awareness. If campaigns are pulled you risk the public believing the problem either no longer matters or has been solved.”

“Commercial companies never make the mistake of letting up on relentlessly reminding people of the issues which are important to them, and neither should Holyrood on public health.

“Obesity, and the serious diseases triggered by excessive weight, is ruinous to the Scottish economy, and Edinburgh cannot afford to not face up to that fact.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Over the last 10 years, robust evaluation and subsequent learnings from campaigns has allowed us to become more efficient and cost-effective in targeting and reaching our audiences.

“Also, over that period, more of our audiences are now online, meaning we have been able to target them through digital advertising, thereby saving public money while still ensuring we get our messages out there, just as effectively.

“Where some years show spikes in spend, this will be related to aspects such as the development of a specific campaign, with cost reducing in subsequent years as overall activity incurs less costs and the production costs are not replicated.

“We also fund and promote other public health work carried out by boards, with over £18m annually being invested in public health promotion body NHS Health Scotland, which is being replaced by a new organisation Public Health Scotland.”