Ash Scotland said that 15,000 young Scots start smoking every year.

But the group`s leaders argued proposed new legislation which includes a ban on tobacco displays in stores could “help stop the advertising of tobacco to children”.

Sheila Duffy, the chief executive of Ash Scotland, spoke out ahead of MSPs debating the general principles of the Tobacco and Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Bill tomorrow.

And she said: “Smoking is a childhood addiction. Two thirds of smokers become addicted under the age of 18, and 40% under the age of 16.”

Ms Duffy went on: “In Scotland smoking causes one in four of all deaths. Nobody chooses to get hooked on a product that kills half of its long-term regular users. However, experimentation can easily turn into an addiction that is hard to break.”

Ash Scotland said 24% of all deaths in Scotland were due to smoking, with the NHS spending more than £409 million a year on treating smoking-related diseases.

The ban on tobacco displays in stores is one of a number of measures put forward by the Scottish Government in the Bill, which also proposes outlawing cigarette vending machines and a registration system for tobacco retailers.

Ms Duffy conceded stores may face a one-off cost if the display ban comes in.

But she insisted: “It is a health measure that must be weighed against the cost to public health, lives, and the NHS.”

The anti-smoking campaigner argued that as most smokers were loyal to their chosen brand, the aim of tobacco retail marketing was to recruit new smokers.

And she added: “Evidence shows the younger you start smoking, the more you smoke in adulthood, the more harm is done to your health, and the harder it is to quit. A child who starts smoking at age 14 or younger is 15 times more likely to die of lung cancer than someone who never smokes.

“So it is alarming that despite a rise in the minimum purchase age to 18, there still remains a high proportion of young teenagers who are regular smokers - 15% of 15-year-olds and 4% of 13-year-olds.”

Ms Duffy concluded: “The display ban is a long-term measure. It is children who are still at nursery who will really feel the benefits of this measure as it is they who will grow up without facing large shiny promotional cigarette powerwalls every time they go into their corner shop or local supermarket.

“This is a generational change, but one that will help stop the advertising of tobacco to children.”

Ms Duffy spoke out after a shopkeeper yesterday gave his support to the Government`s proposals.

Khalid Khurshid said the display ban could help deter youngsters from smoking, and also dismissed claims that the move could result in shops shutting down as scaremongering from manufacturers.

Mr Khurshid, who runs the Muirton Food Market in Perth, spoke after meeting Public Health Minister Shona Robison.

He said: “The tobacco display ban proposals going before Parliament this week will act to deter people from smoking, particularly the young.

“There are two schools near my shop and school children often come in and look at the display before asking adults passing by to purchase cigarettes for them.”

Mr Khurshid added: “In my opinion tobacco companies are trying to scare retailers by suggesting that if displays are banned, business will close. I disagree with this and completely support this bid to end cigarette displays.”