New figures from Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) show that of the 302,000 households in the North East that include an adult smoker, 102,000 (34 per cent) are below the poverty line.
An estimated 34,000 households could be lifted out of poverty if they quit smoking. These households comprise around 59,000 people including 18,000 children and 8,842 pensioners. On average, households that include a smoker spend £2,158 a year on tobacco.
The figures are published today alongside a health inequalities toolkit advising local authorities and the NHS on how to reduce smoking rates among those experiencing health inequalities.
Most people start smoking as teenagers and after a year of smoking, 85 per cent say they would find it difficult to quit. Smokers often try to quit many times before they are successful, but those from disadvantaged backgrounds face particular barriers as they are more likely to be highly addicted and to live in communities where smoking rates are high. These smokers often need more support than others to successfully quit.
Professor John Moxham, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at King's College London School of Medicine, said: "Smoking disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged in society and is one of the major reasons that poorer people get ill and die younger. Smokers from poorer backgrounds tend to start younger and are more likely to become more highly addicted, with their addiction contributing to ongoing poverty. The Government must support local authorities to end these unacceptable inequalities."
Lisa Surtees, acting director of Fresh, said: "At a time when so many people are struggling, these figures show how thousands of North East families could feel better off by quitting smoking. Most smokers regret ever starting and do not want their own children to start.
"Smoking puts poorer families under significant financial pressure. This in turn places a burden on local services and negatively impacts the local economy. Quitting smoking not only saves lives, but puts money back into the pockets of the poorest households in our community.
"More than ever, it's the poorest people in our society who take up smoking younger and are more likely to suffer from tobacco-related diseases from middle age. The North East pays a heavy price, while the tobacco industry profits."
But the smokers' group, Forest, has accused anti-smoking campaigners of 'breathtaking hypocrisy' following claims that quitting smoking will lift huge numbers of people out of poverty.
Director Simon Clark said: "Anti-smoking campaigners love it when tobacco taxation goes up, but they ignore the impact it has on those who can least afford it. Punitive taxation on tobacco, which ASH supports, increases poverty in some households so it's breathtaking hypocrisy to use the poverty card as part of their campaign to force people to quit.
"Their lack of empathy for adults who enjoy a cigarette is staggering. Tobacco is a legal product and smokers have a right to expect a level of taxation that is fair and reasonable and doesn't increase inequality. The argument that giving up smoking will lift people out of poverty is also unrealistic because the odds are they will spend the money on other things, which is their choice."