LONDON (Reuters Life!) - British anti-smoking pressure group ASH has asked the government to consider a ban on smoking in cars in an attempt to protect children and young people from second-hand smoke.
The appeal comes in a report by the group, Action on Smoking and Health, that said smoking now costs Britain's state-run National Health Service (NHS) 2.7 billion pounds ($4.74 billion) a year, a billion more than a decade ago.
The cost would have risen to more than 3 billion pounds annually had action not led to a fall in the number of smokers from 12 to nine million, it added.
The report called for the British government to take more action in health legislation to be unveiled in December, with demands for plain packaging of tobacco products and a ban on shop displays.
It also wants "serious consideration" of a ban on smoking behind the wheel.
Such a move, it noted, had been taken by some authorities in South Africa, Canada, the U.S. and Australia and it argued there was majority public support in Britain for a ban in vehicles carrying children.
"Children and young people are also regularly exposed to second-hand smoke in cars where levels of toxins can get extremely high, even when windows are opened," it said.
"Effective measures to protect people from the harmful effects of tobacco smoke in cars should be investigated."
Since 2003, it has been illegal for manufacturers to use any trademark or sign to suggest that one product is less harmful than another but ASH said more needed to be done to curb misleading branding and messages being given to young people.
It cited research from the University of Nottingham which found that using the word "smooth" or lighter colored branding misled young people into thinking the product was not as bad for their health.
"The government could save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions from the NHS budget with an ambitious new tobacco control strategy," said Deborah Arnott, director of ASH.
"More than anything, we need to protect young people from the aggressive marketing techniques employed by the tobacco industry."
Pro-smoking groups argue that measures such as banning tobacco displays and vending machines would not work. Instead, they advocate stronger enforcement of a ban on selling tobacco to those under 18.
"Far from being a drain on society, smokers make an enormous financial contribution," said Simon Clark, director of the lobby group Forest told the BBC.
"Each year smokers pay over 9 billion pounds in tobacco taxation, a figure that dwarfs the alleged cost of smoking to the NHS."
According to figures from ASH, over 80,000 people die from smoking related diseases every year in Britain, while one in seven 15-year-olds was a regular smoker.
Editing by Steve Addison and Paul Casciato