Minister for Health Dr James Reilly has said it is 'irresponsible' of parents to smoke in the presence of children, given the evidence that tobacco smoke is a carcinogen which shortens lives.

He said he favoured introducing legislation, as early as possible next year, to ban smoking in cars when children are present.

The minister said the State had a duty of care to minors and he wanted to start a public debate on the issue.

However, he is not proposing a total ban, as suggested in some newspaper reports today.

Dr Reilly said that before any new measures are considered, he wants to establish the extent of the problem.

He also wants to consider whether the issue should be dealt with as a road safety matter or a public health issue.

The minister said he was awaiting proposals from the Tobacco Policy Review that is under way.

Dr Reilly said any measures would have to be evidence based, would require good planning and the mobilisation of public opinion and have simple, clear and enforceable legislation.

Forest Éireann, which represents the smoking lobby, has described proposals to ban smoking in cars, where children are present, as over the top and unnecessary.

It said that smokers were responsible people and would not light up in cars where children were present.

The Irish Cancer Society has welcomed the move and said that any legislation must be supported by a strong educational and awareness campaign that highlights the health hazards of smoking with children present.