THE true cost of caring for ageing smokers can be laid bare today as new figures reveal that Hampshire taxpayers are stumping up £16m a year to treat them.

The shocking scale of looking after those over 50 with smoking-related illnesses comes as cash-strapped council bosses in the region struggle to save jobs and public services in the face of savage budget cuts of more than £100m.

The research by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) found Southampton City Council forks out £2.3 million each year to support ill smokers in their own homes and Hampshire County Council £14.4 million.

Now council bosses have pledged to make it a priority to encourage more smokers to kick the habit, while campaigners are urging for more services that prevent people from picking up their first cigarette.

The extraordinary findings comes just a few months after a city council report revealed Southamp-ton’s taxpayers are shelling out an eye-watering total of £75m each year in dealing with smokers of all ages.

As previously reported, this includes spending £2m on picking up fag-ends, days after plans were unveiled to stop smokers from lighting up in outdoor children’s play areas.

More than £81m is spent on cigarettes and tobacco in the city every year, with more than one in five people lighting up.

Responding to today’s care cost findings, health and adult social care boss, Cllr David Shields, said: “These costs show just a small part of the problem we have in Southampton.

“With more smokers than the national average, reducing smoking is a key priority for the council and the city’s hea-lth and wellbeing board.

“Last year, we signed the Local Government Declaration for Tobacco Control and we have since introduced a tobacco control strategy.

“One part of this included making children’s play parks smoke-free, and next month we’re introducing carbon monoxide screenings to assist pregnant women give up.”

He added: “We want to do all we can to support and protect all our residents and with Stoptober around the corner, this is a really good time to think about stopping smoking.”

Cllr Liz Fairhurst, county council chief of adult social care and public health, added that these figures further highlight the benefits of ensuring fewer people take up the habit.

She added: “We have had the healthcare costs documented previously and NICE analysis has demonstrated that stopping smoking services remain the most cost effective intervention to improve people’s health outcomes.”

Chief executive of ASH Deborah Arnott added: “Local authorities are facing a financial squeeze that makes |effective and targeted spending on preventative services all the more important.”