St George’s pregnancy expert Professor Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran has joined a group of the country’s top doctors to call for a ban on smoking in cars. Sir Arul and 19 leading national medics have urged the government to protect children from passive smoking by extending prohibitive legislation. They want to ban smoking in cars, as well as in public places frequented by children.

Sir Arul, who is president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and his colleagues made their plea in a letter published in The Times. Amongst Sir Arul’s fellow signatories are another 12 presidents of medical royal colleges.

They wrote: “Smoke-free legislation also needs to be extended much more widely, to include public places visited by children and young people, and including prohibition of all smoking in cars and other vehicles.”

Their letter was published on the same day the Royal College of Physicians released a report – Passive Smoking and Children – that confirmed passive smoking as a leading cause of death and disease in children. The report said that two million children are exposed to cigarette smoke at home, and that children are twice as likely to take up the habit if a close family member smokes.

Sir Arul and his fellow letter writers have recommended a comprehensive strategy to reduce adult smoking and children’s exposure inside and outside the family home. They said such a campaign should include “tobacco price rises, mass media campaigns, more effective health warnings, prohibition of point of sale display, generic packaging and better provision of smoking cessation services”.

They added: “The Chief Medical Officer, in his foreword to the report, says that we must keep up the momentum to continue to reduce the harm of tobacco use in our communities, and create a truly smoke-free future. As doctors, we agree, and call on governments to take the necessary actions to protect our children’s future.”

The Royal College of Physicians’ report warned that passive smoking is placing a huge strain on the NHS. It said more than 300,000 GP appointments and 9,500 hospital admissions are caused each year by the effects of smoke on children. This, it stated, costs the NHS about £23 million a year. The report also said that child health problems caused by second-hand smoke included 20,000 annual cases of lower respiratory tract infection, 120,000 cases of middle-ear disease, and 200 cases of bacterial meningitis. It claimed that passive smoking causes about 40 sudden infant deaths each year.

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said the report was very valuable, and would be considered in a Department of Health review later this year.