Dying for a smoke?
Grim tobacco toll revealed - 250 deaths a year in Luton alone
Smoking should be made illegal in a bid to stamp out the addiction which costs more than 250 lives in Luton each year, according to local health experts.
But until the government can come up with the right legislation, they believe smoking should be banned in all places where the public gather, including pubs and restaurants.
The call for tough restrictions on tobacco came from Morag Stewart, Luton's associate director of health improvement, after staggering figures showing the damage inflicted by smoking were released locally.
Luton, with its high proportion of deprived residents, is one of the hardest hit towns in Britain from diseases associated with smoking.
The extent of the local problem is illustrated with children as young as 11 becoming addicted to cigarettes.
In five years, more than 1,270 people have died in Luton because of the habit.
Luton already has a high infant mortality rate, and the shock figures show that mothers who smoke are 28 per cent more at risk of losing a child.
Smoking is responsible for death from a vast array of illnesses, including cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, bronchitis, heart, stroke and circulation diseases, asthma, brittle bone disease and diabetes.
Smoke related illnesses already cost the NHS Â£1.7 billion every year, and the addicition has already been branded as the principal cause of the inequalities in death rates between rich and poor by former health minister Alan Milburn.
In the upper and middle classes, around 15 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women smoke cigarettes, but lower down the social scale, 45 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women smoke. At the bottom of the table, among the most deprived groups, smoking prevalence reaches over 70 per cent.
But, Morag said: "You really cannot blame these people for smoking, it is probably the only pleasure they have. If you are living in a miserable house with damp on the walls and you are out of work, it is hardly surprising that you will want a cigarette."
Alarmed by the growth in the number of under age youngsters addicted to tobacco, local trading standards officers are hunting crooks who sell cheap cigarettes from vans outside school premises.
Morag says they are promoting the childrens' addiction by selling cigarettes, not in packets, but singly or by twos and threes.
She said: "I really would like to see tobacco made illegal, particularly when you see the damage it does to people and the immense cost to the economy. The cost to the NHS is phenomenal."
Non-smoker Morag, who admits trying and hating a cigarette while at school, added: "The biggest thing people can do to try and improve their health is to give up smoking.
"Smoking is a killer, but it is never to late to give it up. There are benefits even in your 60s. It will still benefit your health."
Growing numbers of young people are smoking, particularly girls. "We don't know why, perhaps it is peer pressure and they just think it is cool."
Because of growing addiction problems among ethnic groups in the town, Luton's Stop Smoking Service has appointed a special adviser to seek help from local religious leaders of the perils of cigarettes and tobacco.
A major problem among some groups is the chewing of tobacco, which is causing growing numbers of people contracting oral cancer.
The link between smoking and diabetes is also strong within ethnic groups.
Morag said the problem of smoking was much higher in Luton than in the rest of Bedfordshire or the Eastern Region.
"Luton has a large number of people who are lower down the social scale, and they do tend to smoke more," she added.
She said it was up to the government to make laws outlawing tobacco smoking in public places, and dismissed stories that they might be reluctant because of the huge amount of tax it gathers from cigarettes and other tobacco.
"The savings from the NHS would more than offset the loss of taxes," she said.
Morag, who is responsible for Luton's Stop Smoking Service formerly called the smoking cessation unit said that the group has had a 70 per cent success rate in helping people to give up the habit.
Smokers who are determined to give up are offered free anti nicotine replacement drugs and patches.