CAMPAIGNERS, MPs and a leading doctor in the region have criticised a cigarette manufacturer for what they claim is a “scheming, calculating and cynical” approach to targeting young women.

The launch of the super slim cigarettes has been branded outrageous and disgraceful.

But the tobacco manufacturer behind the product hit back last night, claiming it was not trying to encourage anyone to take up smoking.

British American Tobacco (BAT), which produces the new Vogue Perle cigarettes, said it was merely attempting to persuade existing smokers to switch to its brands.

Fresh: Smoke Free North- East, which is funded by the NHS, last night claimed BAT is deliberately encouraging young women in the region to smoke by exploiting their obsessions with supermodels and staying slim.

The packs boast of being designed in Paris, and are described as “taller and thinner than a king sized cigarette’’ with a “compact box that fits easily into a pocket or handbag”.

It has been reported there is a “multi-million pound support package” for the launch of the product at the “ASU30s market” – industry jargon for adult smokers under 30. And it is claimed BAT is hoping Vogue Perle will take off in the North where the most mid-price cigarettes are bought.

Ailsa Rutter, director of Fresh, said: “The tobacco industry clearly sees the North- East as a huge pound sign.

“We have already seen glamorous cigarette promotional staff stalking our bars, but this is the first time we have seen this brand being promoted here.”

The North-East has the highest rate of female smokers in England with 250,000 women adult smokers – 23 per cent of adult women.

Fourteen per cent of girls in the North-East report that they smoke regularly. And 22 per cent of North-East mothers- to-be are still smoking when they have their baby.

Dr Shonag Mackenzie, consultant obstetrician at Wansbeck Hospital in Ashington, Northumberland, treats women every week whose smoking has harmed or damaged their baby’s growth.

She said last night: “I am appalled.

It is simply outrageous that they are allowed to get away with this. I think people will be shocked.

“Babies die because their mothers smoke. That is a reality in my day-to-day life.”

She added: “Young women are obsessed with fashion and staying slim and this is exactly the message this pack is trying to give.

“The frightening thing is that it is young teenage girls who don’t yet smoke but are probably experimenting who are most likely to be influenced by this advertising.”

Dr Mackenzie said this might mean more babies born with health problems, more costs to the NHS and more families losing daughters, mothers and grandmothers at an early age.

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman, said: “I think most people will be very concerned that the tobacco industry is allowed to get away with such a scheming, calculating approach to targeting women here in the North of England.

“Anyone who has lost a mum or daughter to smoking will be particularly appalled.”

Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, said: “This cynical approach by the tobacco industry to use marketing to target young women is disgraceful.”

The Government has announced plans to launch a consultation on whether manufacturers should be forced to put cigarettes into plain packets.

Ms Rutter said the development highlights the need to follow the example of Australia and seriously look at plain packaging on tobacco.

She said: “If glamorous designs on packs did not help it recruit new customers, the tobacco industry would not spend millions of pounds on developing them. The packs themselves are as powerful as any TV or cinema advert.”

But a spokeswoman for BAT said last night: “Our marketing is not aimed at encouraging anybody to start smoking, whatever their gender or age – it is about persuading existing male and female adult smokers to choose our brands and not those of our competitors.

“Adult tobacco consumers have different tastes and preferences and we set out to meet them from our portfolio of brands. If adult women who are aware of the health risks associated with tobacco choose to smoke, then that is a personal choice.

“We respect all laws, wherever we operate, and our strict International Marketing Standards require that our product activities should not be aimed at youth nor feature a celebrity, nor link tobacco with professional, sexual, social or sporting success.”