Most major chains sell own-label cigarettes but in nearly all cases their ownership is concealed because supermarkets fear it will harm their image, Dr Martin Jarvis of University College, London claimed.
A study published in the British Medical Journal found that own-label cigarettes were on average 20 per cent cheaper than leading brands but had higher nicotine and tar levels. Dr Jarvis, who conducted the research, said the supermarkets were exploiting groups who could least afford to smoke, suffered most from smoking and who most needed to give up.
He said: "With nearly all other products the supermarket's name is prominently displayed on the label . But most of these cigarette packets don't mention the supermarket at all. It's as if they are ashamed of what they are up to. They want to profit from the tobacco trade without associating their names with it."
Retailers' own-brand cigarettes account for half of all the brands marketed in the UK and 7 per cent of all cigarettes sold. On average, they cost pounds 2.48 for a packet of 20, as against the normal selling price of pounds 3.20 for brand leaders.
Own-label cigarettes identified in the study included Benington at Tesco, Kings Men at Co-op and Balmoral at Asda. Only Asda's packet carried the store name.
Dr Jarvis, of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's health behaviour unit, said some stores had transferred ownership of the brand to the manufacturing company in a bid to dissociate themselves from the tobacco industry.
But he said most of the lines were available exclusively through the supermarket outlets and claims that they were not own-label brands were "semantics".
Tesco remained adamant, however, that the Benington range was not an own-label product. A spokesman said the line was launched in 1995 as an own-label product but the policy had been reviewed and ownership of the trademark passed to makers R J Reynolds. They were also on sale at other outlets, he said.
Co-op insisted the lines it sold were "exclusive brands, not own-brand cigarettes". A spokesman said: "We provide them as a service to our customers who smoke. We need to be able to compete against other retailers ... In some respects we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, said: "The supermarket chains want to be seen as the friend of the hard-pressed mother, offering wholesome food at reasonable prices ... It is quite grotesque that they should be actively engaged in selling these cheap unbranded cigarettes ..."Reuse content