THE shocking cost of East Lancashire’s chronic smoking problem has been revealed for the first time as £163million per year.

The area has some of the highest smoking rates and lowest lung cancer survival rates in the country, with around 1,000 deaths a year caused by the addiction.

But new figures have shown that smoking also costs East Lancashire’s economy a ‘staggering’ annual total.

Each year it dwarfs the initial £113million capital cost of building Royal Blackburn Hospital which opened in 2006.

This figure includes £33.5million alone in lost productivity from workers taking smoking breaks and £28.8million from smoking-related sick days.

Health watchdog, councillor Ron O’Keeffe, said he was horrified by the figures.

The chairman of the borough’s health overview and scrutiny committee said: “The figures are atrocious and frightening.

“Money could be saved both in the NHS and by local authorities and that could be ploughed back into local communities and services.

“But you can produce as many figures as you want in my opinion and smokers will still say ‘if I can afford to buy cigarettes I’m not bothered’.

“What it needs is drastic measures aimed at children, showing them somebody who has a terrible lung disease from smoking and saying this is what you could end up with.”

ASH (Action on Smoking and Health), which released the data in partnership with Tobacco Free Futures, looked at seven indicators, compiled for each of East Lancashire’s six council boroughs.

It estimates that £47.7million is lost in output due to early deaths caused by smoking and £8.5million due to early deaths caused by passive smoking.

It said that the total cost of smoking to the NHS in East Lancashire was £31.2million a year.

And its estimates, based on national surveys and research, also suggested that the cost of smoking related fires in East Lancashire was £6.1million and the cost of clearing up smoking materials £2.9million.

However, business leaders and councils questioned the validity of the figures.

Mike Damms, chief executive of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, said: “Some employers would argue that their workforce is more productive if you let people have breaks and smoking breaks.

“But overall I agree with the sentiment of the report and we’re not surprised the cost is high as smoking-related illness is the predominant self-inflicted reason for absence from work.”

David Fishwick, who run the biggest van and minibus firm in the UK, David Fishwick Van and Minibus Sales in Colne, said he did not think smoking affected the productivity of his staff and that you could create a similar figure for people taking tea and coffee breaks.

He said: “I think you’ve got to give and take with people and I find that people who do take a break to smoke tend to work that little bit harder later to make up for it.

“I think the world is going mad trying to find a reason why productivity is down - people have been smoking at work for a lot of years.”

Tom Ormerod, contract manager of Burnley Council’s Streetscene unit, said: “There’s no doubt that cigarette ends and other smoking materials add to the general litter on our streets and have to be cleaned up.

“Burnley Council has invested in bins, particularly in Burnley town centre, which are adapted to enable smokers to stub out and then dispose of cigarettes responsibly.”

But Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service said it believed the £6.1million cost of smoking related fires to be an accurate figure.

Area manager Dave Russell, the service’s head of community risk management, said: “The economic price of a house fire is immense and you can’t put a cost on the lives of loved ones.

“A smouldering cigarette is one of the biggest causes of fatal fires and we know that these fires are more likely to start during the night and that some of the most common places for them to start are settees beds and carpets.”

From April 2013 local authorities will be wholly responsible for public health, including tackling smoking.

Ash calculated that smokers in East Lancashire spend £185.3million on tobacco products each year, paying roughly £141.2million in duty to the Exchequer.

But that contribution still leaves the region with an annual funding shortfall of £21.3million.

The assistant director for Lancashire Public Health Network, Paula Hawley-Evans, welcomed the tool.

She said: “Tackling tobacco across communities in East Lancashire needs to be a priority, not only to protect the health of children but also to make substantial savings and help our local economy.”