TOBACCO companies who employed people in the North-East could be facing a legal threat for giving employees free cigarettes which a health charity claims encouraged them to smoke.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) say the free cigarettes given to staff have led to serious smoking-related illness and the charity is calling for British American Tobacco (BAT) to reveal policy details surrounding the free handouts.

In the 1980s more than 2,700 people were employed in the North-East in tobacco manufacturing alone.

The Northern Echo:

TOBACCO SALESMAN: Simon Neale, now 57, pictured in front of a Rothmans car in the 1980s. Mr Neale has now been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and says he didn’t become a heavy smoker until he was given free cigarettes at work

Rothmans had manufacturing plants at Spennymoor and Darlington and closed in 2000 and 2001 respectively after merging with BAT in 1999.

One BAT employee now has inoperable lung cancer and says working at Rothmans turned him from an occasional smoker to a heavy smoker.

Simon Neale, now 57 started working for the company age 21.

"It’s staggering looking back on it," he said. "But I was told when I joined the company that I’d be getting 1200 free cigarettes a month.

"Working at Rothmans I went from being an occasional smoker, a social smoker, to being a heavy smoker because I had so many cigarettes given to me.

"Last Autumn I was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and it knocked me for six, the worst thing was telling the children. The lung cancer has all come about from me working for Rothmans.”

At BAT’s Annual General Meeting today ASH will be asking that the company reveal full details of its policy of handing out free cigarettes to employees and the public.

ASH states that the link between smoking and lung cancer emerged in the 1950s but across the tobacco industry, salesmen and production workers were routinely given free cigarettes as part of the job, with the tobacco companies knowing that this was likely to lead to addiction, disease and disability.

They say members of the public were also given free cigarettes (which became illegal under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002 Section 9, although free cigarettes for people employed in the tobacco trade remained legal) and smoking was heavily promoted.

ASH chief executive Deborah Arnott said: "Simon Neale is not the only one.

"Many thousands of employees were given free cigarettes and free cigarettes were also doled out to the public.

"We’d encourage anyone now suffering with a serious smoking-related disease who took up smoking before the 1990s to come forward and tell us their story.”

Simon Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at British American Tobacco, said: “Historically, BAT employees had the option to receive a monthly allowance of cigarettes.

"At all times, these products complied with all applicable laws and regulations, including the relevant health warnings.

“In a small number of markets – 6 out of approximately 200 – this allowance continues as a result of collective bargaining agreements with local trade unions, and the products supplied comply with all applicable local regulations, including health warnings.”

People who took up smoking before the 1990s and are now seriously ill from smoking are asked to contact ASH at