Health chiefs have been rapped on the knuckles for making unfounded claims about tobacco companies.

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) upheld a complaint about an NHS West Sussex leaflet which said cigarette firms targeted children.

The leaflet also counted smokers who had given up for four weeks as being permanent quitters.

The ASA concluded the claims were “likely to mislead” and asked the health service to withdraw the advert.

The body received a complaint about a leaflet entitled Don’t Run With The Pack, published as part of NHS West Sussex’s Well Fit campaign.

It was left at GP surgeries to advertise nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) to help people give up smoking.

It read: “Did you know that tobacco companies actively target young people to replace older smokers as they die off?

“Did you know that in some developing countries tobacco companies give out free cigarettes to children and young people to get them hooked?

“Did you know that you are twice as likely to succeed at stopping if you use NRT? Did you know that you are four times as likely to succeed if you use NRT and see a specialist advisor?”

The ASA concluded there was not enough evidence to demonstrate tobacco companies were targeting younger people in the UK.

It did find there was enough evidence for a claim that tobacco companies were distributing free cigarettes to children and young people in Africa, South America and the Caribbean to get them addicted.

The ASA decided the claim about people stopping smoking was misleading because “stopping” meant going only four weeks without smoking.

Its report said: “We considered that readers were likely to expect that the references to stopping smoking were based on more permanent cessation and not merely the four-week period used under the NHS definition.

“We therefore concluded that the ad was likely to mislead.”

Anna Kirk, the health improvement practitioner for substance misuse at NHS West Sussex said: “We note the findings of the ASA and take them on board for all future resources.

“We continue to be committed to reducing the harm caused to our community by tobacco.

”We do this by supporting more than 4,000 people to stop smoking every year, working with schools and others to prevent children starting to smoke, and reducing the harms of second-hand smoke by promoting smoke-free environments.”