Other proposals likely to be studied include an American- style ban on smoking in public places, and an increase on the pounds 2,000 maximum fine for shopkeepers selling tobacco to under-16s.
The new drive comes amid evidence that the tobacco industry, hit by litigation from smokers in the United States, is having success in attracting a new generation of smokers, especially female, in Britain.
An anti-smoking seminar, "Dying for a Fag", to be hosted today in London by the Department of Health, will be the forum to discuss various proposed curbs. The meeting will be addressed by Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, and Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Public Health, as well as experts from across the world, and representatives from sports, arts, business and healthcare.
As a backbencher Ms Jowell introduced a Bill in l994 to outlaw smoking in public places. However, she is now believed to favour allowing time for pubs, restaurants, hotels and businesses to ban smoking before legislating.
Among those not invited to the seminar are tobacco firms. The industry's umbrella group, the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, rejected the proposal for a projected higher age limit, saying "you can get married at 16 and join the army at 17".
But this is not a universal view in the cigarette manufacturing business. BAT Industries, formerly British American Tobacco, supports reform. Brendan Brady, the company's head of issues management, said: "We would support measures to allow sales only at 18."
The TMA funds campaigns to stop shopkeepers from selling cigarettes to children. But it acknowledges that about pounds 100m worth of cigarettes is sold to under-16s each year.
The Portman Group, which represents the drinks industry, has called for a " proof of age" card for 18-year-olds allowing them to buy alcohol. Similar cards may be introduced for tobacco purchase by 16-year-olds even if the age limit is not immediately raised.
Previous governments had set a target of cutting the proportion of children who smoke to 6 per cent by l994. But the latest surveys suggest 13 per cent of girls and 10 per cent of boys in the 11-to-15 age group smoke.
The ideas discussed at today's forum are expected to influence a government White Paper due to be published in October.Reuse content