THE “shocking” number of early deaths caused by bad living in the North-East - compared with most of England - is condemned by the Health Secretary today (Tuesday, June 11).

Jeremy Hunt said the huge gulf in death rates from the ‘four major killers’ - cancer, heart disease and stroke, lung disease and liver disease - was unacceptable.

And he challenged local health chiefs to close the gap, saying: “People’s lives are needlessly cut short and that cannot continue unchecked.”

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Mr Hunt spoke out as he published new statistics revealing there were more than 30,000 premature deaths – before the age of 75 – across the North-East, between 2009 and 2011.

Every local authority, bar Northumberland, is given a ‘red’ rating in a new traffic-light system – meaning they have among the worst records of England’s 150 local authorities.

In contrast, both North Yorkshire and York are given a ‘green’ rating - on a new website, - marking them out as among the best.

Middlesbrough (145th) has the worst ranking of the North-East authorities, behind Sunderland (132nd), Hartlepool (131st), Newcastle (130th) and South Tyneside (129th).

Slightly better performing are County Durham (105th), Darlington (94th) and Redcar and Cleveland (93rd) – but they all have higher death rates than the average.

For example, there were 305 premature deaths in County Durham per 100,000 people, over the two-year period – compared with 236.9 in neighbouring North Yorkshire.

In the case of lung disease, people in County Durham are almost 50 per cent more likely to die before the age of 75 (29 per 100,000) than in North Yorkshire (19).

And a similar gulf exists for early deaths from liver disease – 18 per 100,000 in County Durham and ten per 100,000 in North Yorkshire.

Mr Hunt said greater poverty was no excuse for high early death rates – pointing to Redcar and Cleveland as an example of a poorer area that was successful saving lives.

And he said: “This shocking variation in early and unnecessary deaths means people’s lives are needlessly cut short and that cannot continue unchecked.

“I want areas to use the data released today to identify local public health challenges like smoking, drinking and obesity and to take action.”

The statistics are published just weeks after local councils were given responsibility for public health, following the demise of primary care trusts (PCTs).

Town halls are now responsible for ensuring people aged 40 to 75 undergo regular NHS health checks - taken by less than half of patients in some parts of the country.

Mr Hunt has set an ambitious target to save 30,000 lives a year by 2020, by cutting death rates from the four major killers.

However, he was accused of a “grossly unfair” distribution of funds – with County Durham receiving £86-per head, much less than the £130-per head handed to wealthy Kensington and Chelsea.