HAMPSHIRE councils are investing millions of pounds of public money from their pension fund in the tobacco trade – at the same time as trying to cut smoking levels.

Hampshire Pension Fund has £20.3m invested in British American Tobacco, which employs more than 1,100 people in Southampton.

Critics said it sent local councils’ health credentials up in smoke and raised serious ethical questions.

But pension chiefs say the main aim of the fund is to achieve the best financial return for its 47,000 contributors and 28,000 pensioners.

The scheme provides pensions for employees at the county council, Southampton and Portsmouth city councils and 11 district councils.

Decisions on ethical, environmental and social issues are delegated to external fund managers. The county council, which runs the scheme, only asks managers not to invest in stocks that “could reasonably be expected to embarrass the fund”.

Meanwhile the county council has signed up to a target of reducing smoking levels to improve health and well-being in the most deprived wards. A spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health said: “It does seem hypocritical on the one hand to promote good health and anti-smoking measures and on the other to invest in and effectively prop up the tobacco industry.”

Lib Dem opposition leader at the county council, Keith House, added: “If we are serious about issues such as health and environmental protection maybe now would be a good time to look at these issues.

“Oil companies have different strands to them but there is nothing positive about tobacco at all. It is one of the biggest mass killers of our age.”

Hampshire Pension Fund also has £15.4m invested in mining company Rio Tinto which has been accused of human rights abuses and environmental damage across the globe. Other Hampshire Pension Fund investments include £28m in BP, which has a terminal at Hamble and is currently at the centre of an environmental disaster caused by a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and £29m in Royal Dutch Shell.

Councillor Mark Kemp-Gee, chairman of Hampshire Pension Fund, said: “I don’t think it is wrong investing in tobacco companies. That does not mean I am pro-smoking.

“We believe that it’s not good for people’s long-term health to smoke but it is a matter of personal choice. So long as there is no evidence tobacco companies have broken the law, it seems okay to invest in them.

“There will be institutions that choose not to invest in tobacco companies but we are not one of them.”

The Hampshire pension scheme includes civilian workers at Hampshire Fire and Rescue and the police authority as well as staff at the two Southampton Universities.