CIGARETTES are being made too appealing to children with the health hazards hidden by glitz and glamour, a leading heart charity has claimed.

The British Heart Foundation is calling for stricter controls on the design of cigarette packets after a survey found that 79 per cent of young people in the North-East said they would be less inclined to buy them if they were in plainer packs.

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The charity, which aims to prevent people dying from heart disease, surveyed more than 100 youngsters aged between 12 and 25 in the region.

About 85 per cent thought that plain packs were less attractive than branded packs, which the charity claims shows how plain packaging could make a significant difference in deterring young smokers.

Just over 13 per cent believed one branded cigarette pack was less harmful than another based on the packet design alone, although their toxin levels were the same.

The survey comes as the Government is launching a consultation on whether the UK should follow Australia’s example and adopt plain packaging for tobacco products.

Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: “As informed adults, we know that smoking is a deadly addiction that kills half of all smokers, but young people are not always fully aware of the risks, and the power of branding holds more sway.

“Tobacco advertising is rightly banned in the UK, yet glitzy packaging clearly still advertises tobacco on the cigarette box.

“It’s an absurd loophole the tobacco industry takes full advantage of to lure in new young smokers.

“We must close it if we really want to protect younger generations from taking up this fatal habit.”

About 200,000 children and young people in England start smoking each year, and more than two-thirds of the UK’s existing ten million smokers started before they turned 18.

Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, a North-East based group opposed to smoking, said: “Branded packaging is one of the tobacco industry’s leading promotional tools, recruiting children and young people to a lifetime of addiction.

“The majority of North-East smokers start about 15 years-old.

“Glamorous packaging helps to attract new customers – if it didn’t the tobacco industry wouldn’t spend millions of pounds developing new designs.”

But Simon Clark, director of Forest, a lobbying group that opposes smoking bans, said there is no evidence to suggest a change would make a difference, and claimed it was misleading to call the packaging plain.

He said: “This is all part of the denormalisation of smoking, which is a legal activity. What’s being proposed are not plain packages at all but rather grotesque images that are being rammed down our throats."