Smoking-related illnesses are costing the North-East's health services more than pounds 100m a year.
A range of severe, often life-threatening, conditions have been linked to long-term smoking, such as stomach cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease and strokes.
Last year, treating the effects of smoking cost the region's NHS as much as running a district general hospital such as North Tyneside.
The money could instead have paid for:
* 6,000 more nurses;
* 1,600 more consultants;
* 15,000 heart bypass operations;
* 125,000 cataract operations.
Now new figures from the Department of Health show we are finally starting to tackle the problem. Smoking cessation services have helped more people kick the habit here than anywhere else in the country. Deputy Medical Director for Northumberland Tyne and Wear Strategic Health Authority (SHA) Dr Eugene Milne said: "The problem we have in this region is that we start from a worse position than elsewhere in the country, which means we have further to go.
"However, for some years now we have had the best services in the country in terms of helping people to quit smoking and I think we should be proud of what we have achieved."
It is estimated that in the UK, smoking kills 120,000 people a year. A North-South divide still exists in lung cancer, one of the main effects of smoking, with the region having a 20pc higher rate than anywhere else. The launch of smoking cessation services in the North East has had a major effect. Between last April and June, 5,000 people kicked the habit, a potential long-term saving of pounds 815,000 to the NHS.
Last night, Health Secretary John Reid launched a pioneering deal to help 10,000 smokers quit by giving the NHS free stop-smoking products such as nicotine patches and gum. Agreements between the Government and major suppliers of anti-smoking products will give all primary care trusts additional support from these suppliers, including free nicotine patches.
North-East public health director Dr Bill Kirkup said: "More people in our region light up than in any other part of the country and we have the highest rates of smoking-related disease such as lung cancer and coronary heart disease.
"Giving up - or not starting in the first place - is the best single thing an individual can do to improve his or her health."
But Simon Clark, director of the pro-smoking lobby group Forest, said if everyone stopped smoking, the NHS would lose four times the amount it saved, through lost taxes. …