THE Government's image as a protector of public health went up in smoke yesterday with the decision to auction off five million confiscated cigarettes and keep the money. In a vain attempt to play down criticism of a burning issue, deputy director of Government Supplies, Mr Cheng Shing-tai, said cigarettes going under the hammer next week were only for export. ''We spend a lot of money here to educate people to give up smoking so we're not going to turn around and sell them cigarettes,'' he said. ''But as for China and other countries, if they don't buy from us they will go elsewhere.'' Anti-smoking activists attacked the move, saying the Government was merely exporting cancer and heart disease. Chairman of the Hongkong Council on Smoking and Health, Dr Ronald Leung Ding-bong, has threatened to stage a protest on May 6 - the day of the auction. ''It's outrageous for the Government to protect the health of Hongkong people and then help poison neighbouring countries,'' he said. The director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, Dr Judith Mackay, called on the Government to put a match to the contraband cigarettes. Taiwan had recently decided to halt the re-sale of confiscated cigarettes and Hongkong should follow suit, she said. Normally bitter enemies, the Tobacco Institute joined anti-smoking lobbyists in calling for the auction to be cancelled - but for different reasons. Institute chairwoman Ms Jenny Fung Ma Kit-han said the quality of confiscated cigarettes stored for long periods could not be guaranteed and their sale would tarnish the image of tobacco companies. However, Mr Cheng said cigarettes were tested to ensure they were still fit for consumption. The Government regularly auctions contraband cigarettes, raising between $3 million and $4 million at the last sale in September. But Dr Leung suggested Hongkong could also make big money by becoming the region's drug pusher. ''If the Government is so hypocritical, why not sell heroin and cocaine that has been confiscated?'' he asked.