HARTLEPOOL has been highlighted as among the worst areas in the country for smoking rates among young people.
New figures reveal that 15.87 per cent of 15-year-olds in the town are regular or occasional smokers.
Nationally an estimated 12.71 per cent of the age group are regular or occasional smokers.
The town follows Gateshead (15.92 per cent), Plymouth (15.93 per cent), South Tyneside (16.27 per cent) and Kingston upon Hull (16.68 per cent) as having high rates of youth smoking.
The study was commissioned by Public Health England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), and was created using modelling provided by the universities of Portsmouth and Southampton.
A University of Portsmouth spokeswoman said: “The figures are estimates of youth smoking rates for every local authority, ward and local NHS level - based on factors known to predict young people smoking.”
She said that nearly eight million people still smoke, with 90 per cent having started before the age of 19.
Professor Kevin Fenton, national director health and wellbeing for Public Health England, said: “Nationally youth smoking rates are falling and are at their lowest ever levels.
“But we know smoking rates vary considerably across the country and smoking causes greater harm to more deprived communities.
“The estimates shine a light on communities where young people have a higher risk of smoking and will help local agencies to focus efforts where they are most needed.
“We want to secure a tobacco-free generation and these figures will help us towards this goal. Our most disadvantaged communities have the most to gain.”
Professor Graham Moon, of the University of Southampton, said: “By having a snapshot of their communities, local organisations are best placed to take action so future generations no longer suffer the devastating and preventable harm caused by tobacco.
“If we can stop young people starting smoking before the age of 19 then they stand the best chance of enjoying the health, social and financial benefits of a smoke-free life.”
The study comes as the Government plans to bring in plain packaging for cigarettes by the next election in order to help discourage young people from smoking.
Mike Hobday, director of policy at the British Heart Foundation, said it shows how important it is that Parliament votes to introduce standardised packaging to help protect young people.”