The Government plans to ban smoking in all enclosed public spaces by 2008, but can the nation really kick the habit? Here Iain Gately reveals how Britain was seduced by tobacco - and how the big cigarette companies fought to keep the affair going even after the brutal medical truth became public. And on the facing page, hardened smokers explain why not even a ban will stop them indulging

When tobacco first reached these shores in the 1560s, probably courtesy of Sir John Hawkins, it was a curiosity, another wonder from the new world. The first smokers were known as "reeking gallants" and they indulged to get intoxicated, or "dry drunk", as the high was then known. Playwrights and poets celebrated the new addition to the hedonist's arsenal. Spenser hailed "divine Tobacco" in his Fairie Queene; Christopher Marlowe declared "all they who love not boys and tobacco are fools".

When tobacco first reached these shores in the 1560s, probably courtesy of Sir John Hawkins, it was a curiosity, another wonder from the new world. The first smokers were known as "reeking gallants" and they indulged to get intoxicated, or "dry drunk", as the high was then known. Playwrights and poets celebrated the new addition to the hedonist's arsenal. Spenser hailed "divine Tobacco" in his Fairie Queene; Christopher Marlowe declared "all they who love not boys and tobacco are fools".

Smoking was denounced by James I as satanic and fit only for excitable American savages. However, the weed was already too popular to be banned, so instead it was taxed, thus establishing a parallel love affair between successive British governments and tobacco.

Over the following centuries, smoking was celebrated as inspirational, invigorating and generally good for the health. An astonished foreigner observed that in England even children were given a pipe to take to school, "which their mothers took care to fill early in the morning, it serving them instead of breakfast". By the Victorian era, smoking was established as a thoroughly British pastime - healthy, manly, patriotic, a vital ingredient of empire-building. Dickens, Darwin, Brunel and Tennyson all used tobacco in one form or other.

Cigarettes appeared in this country during the 1860s. Their seductive qualities were summed up by Oscar Wilde: "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"

Cigarettes inflamed the British passion for tobacco like never before: they were cheap, convenient, and sociable - packs seemed made to be shared. These qualities, together with smoking's reputation for steadying nerves and suppressing appetite, led them to play what was considered to be an indispensable role in the First World War. Cigarettes were deemed to be as important to soldiers as their rations. "You ask me what is needed to win this war," said General Pershing in 1917. "I answer tobacco, as much as bullets. We must have thousands of tons of it without delay."

After the war, more women took up smoking. The movies made it look as natural as eating or kissing, and established cigarettes in the role as a messenger of love between the sexes. Cigarettes were not used just as props, but also as allegories - as an expression of the passion characters held for each other. Early screen stars such as Bette Davis appeared to live off smoke.

During the Second World War, cigarettes once again served in their role as the soldier's friend. They also were used to soothe nerves on the home front. Moreover, since Hitler had been opposed to smoking, the right to smoke had appeared to be an integral part of the conflict, and when victory was achieved, it seemed fitting that Churchill gave his famous salute with a cigar balanced between his splayed fingers. Britain was entering its golden age of smoking. By 1949, 81 per cent of British men and 39 per cent of women smoked.

Clouds were on the horizon, however: in the 1950s a link was established between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, which was growing at an epidemic rate. This shocking truth was vehemently denied by tobacco manufacturers, which had coincidentally just discovered an exciting new market for their product - teenagers. Cigarettes quickly became part of the expression of teenage angst, demonstrated to perfection by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. That smoking might be dangerous seemed to add to its allure.

Tobacco companies knew that they were in trouble. An internal memo of the period said: "There are biologically active materials present in cigarette tobacco. These are (a) cancer causing, (b) cancer promoting, (c) poisonous, (d) stimulating, pleasurable and flavourful." Needless to say, the companies concentrated their efforts on item (d). Tobacco sponsorship of Formula One commenced in 1968, and was followed by money for cricket and golf.

However, by 1972 smokers had become a minority. Some felt they had been deceived by the manufacturers, lured into an unhygienic addiction that would one day kill them. For others, however, the old flame still smouldered - according to the playwright Dennis Potter, writing in 1979: "Nobody has yet been able to demonstrate to me how I can join words into whole sentences on a blank page without a cigarette burning between my lips."

Tobacco manufacturers continued to concentrate on the pleasurable, flavourful side of smoking. Silk Cut, for example, sought to capitalise on public demand for low-tar cigarettes by selling its range with cinema adverts featuring blacked-up Zulu warriors offering besieged redcoats the chance to switch to a lighter brand before they were slaughtered. As advertising legislation became stricter so agencies became more creative - witness Silk Cut again and its enigmatic series of ads featuring nothing more than silk. That had been cut. Companies were advertising but so were the health experts, with ever more graphic illustrations and warnings on packets. So it was that public opinion changed, with smoking being seen increasingly as a sordid vice forced on helpless addicts by unprincipled multinationals. The presumption of a right to smoke has been reversed. Smoke-free zones have been created in offices; aeroplanes and other forms of public transport have banned smoking altogether. This has been accelerated by research suggesting that smoking might be killing non-smokers as well as smokers.

While the success of such limited bans has paved the way for the much more extensive legislation now proposed, a trend has emerged in the past decade which suggests that it may encounter more opposition than expected. Smoking is on the rise once more. Young Britons, especially girls, seem ready to rekindle the national love affair with tobacco, prompted by the ability of tobacco to suppress appetite. Will they fight the ban for the sake of their figures? Will the 25 per cent of Britons who still smoke rise up to defend their habit? History has a final lesson for any government bent on circumscribing tobacco use: in Berlin, in 1848, a ban on public smoking was rewarded with a revolution.

Iain Gately is the author of 'La Diva Nicotina: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World', published by Scribner

The rebels, the self-indulgent and the plain addicted: who 'll still be lighting up whatever the law tells them

At a tobacconist's in Southampton near the UK's biggest cigarette factory, Katy Guest talks to committed smokers

'I like a smoke after a meal, so it'll be a pain'

Gerard Hales, 38, smokes Natural American Spirit organic rolling tobacco, £6.50 for 35g. Tar 12mg Nicotine 1.6mg Carbon monoxide content unlisted

I smoke these because there are no additives in them. I don't think the epidemiology has been done to find out if smoking diseases are caused by the tobacco itself or the additives. If I now smoke Golden Virginia or one of the ordinary rolling tobaccos I feel sick for two or three days.

I started because I got to a stress level where I had to do something else apart from drink. I've given up before, for long periods, for my health. But I see smoking as something to be done occasionally. It should be confined to people who want to do it in places designed for it. The ban also helps me, in my stressed-out state, not to smoke. This kind of stuff is about doing it responsibly. I do like a smoke after a meal and the restaurant thing will be a bit of a pain. So I'm ambivalent about the ban.

'I'd stop smoking only if I was fed up with it'

Tony Long, 45, smokes a pipe with loose tobacco 10-20p per gram. Tar up to 35.9mg Nicotine up to 4.14mg (EC estimates) Carbon monoxide unlisted

I had my first cigar at the age of four. I asked my grandfather what he was smoking and he said a cigar, so I tried it. He said, "Never drink cheap Scotch and never smoke cheap cigars." I tried cigarettes at five and I thought they were disgusting. I started smoking a pipe when I was 19. I'd stop it only if I was fed up with it. I gave up for a while, just to show I could. I worry about the health risks but they are not enough to bother me. But I smoke in a very limited way. I won't give people money if I can't smoke in their pub or restaurant, though. And that's ridiculous because I don't even smoke in restaurants. But I'm not going somewhere I can't smoke.

'It's a thing to do with friends'

Georgina Deakin, 18, smokes Lucky Strike, £4.82 for 20 at W White. Tar 10mg Nicotine 1mg Carbon monoxide 10mg

I prefer Lucky Strikes [made at the British American Tobacco factory nearby] but not many places sell them, so I often have to smoke Marlboro Lights. I've been smoking for about four years. The first time was when I was about 13, but I haven't smoked regularly since. I smoked, basically, because I lived in the middle of nowhere. There was no other entertainment. It was a thing to do with some of my friends - most of them don't now - and it's easy. The smoking ban will probably make me smoke less, which has got to be a good thing. I sometimes think about my health, but I probably worry about it a lot more than I realise. I worry about it most when I get a cough. I don't want to smoke for ever, though. I want to give up by the time I finish university.

'There are so many other things out there that can kill you'

Gavin Ford, 24, smokes Sobranie blacks, £6.50 for 20. Tar 9mg Nicotine 0.8mg Carbon monoxide 10mg

I always get a reaction when I take these out in a pub. People are excited to see them. They say, "What are they?" They're quite pretty, which is primarily why I smoke them. But they're also a lot smoother than a lot of the cheaper brands. I don't consider I'm addicted - but I expect everyone says that. I only smoke socially and I don't think it's heavily enough to consider giving it up. There are so many other things out there that can kill you.

The ban is an awful idea. Smoking is a human right, isn't it? A choice people make. I don't disapprove of non-smoking places or bans in areas where people go specifically to eat food, but I don't agree with the ban when people are just drinking. There will be crowds of people standing outside every front door.

'I would rather smell tobacco than car fumes'

Maggie Fogg, 56, smokes More menthol, £4.90 for 20. Tar 6mg Nicotine 0.6mg Carbon monoxide 6mg

You could have a nice smoke and then go out and get run over by a bus, couldn't you? You see all these plane crashes but you still get on planes. I smoke menthol cigarettes because I like the taste. They taste fresher. I started when my parents used to put out cigarettes at Christmas parties. My friend and I sneaked some out and smoked them in her shed. They were disgusting. I couldn't understand what people saw in them. But it was what grown-ups did, wasn't it?

I can't see myself giving up. I wouldn't really class myself as a smoker; I don't crave them. It's only when I go to Cornwall and sit on a bridge with a glass of wine and a fag. So the ban won't affect me very much. But I do think it's wrong to discriminate. I'd rather be in here and smell tobacco than out there on the street and smell car fumes.

'The ban is a good idea. In the long term it will make me smoke less'

Scott Pearce, 24, smokes Embassy No1, £4.82 for 20. Tar 10 mg Nicotine 0.9mg Carbon monoxide 10mg

I started smoking when I was 12 because I was a stupid schoolkid and I thought it made me look hard. I hated it! I do regret it, and I try to give up now and then. It usually lasts until I go to the pub. I'd like to think I'll give up eventually. I do worry about the risks but I don't smoke much - only about 10 a day. I don't know why I smoke Embassy. Because that's what people at school smoked?

I think the ban is quite a good idea and in the long term it will make me smoke less. If I went into a pub and found it was non-smoking I would stay if I was meeting people. I might pop outside for the odd one but I'd probably smoke a lot less. It's a sort of peer pressure on the nation, isn't it? Everyone will give up, eventually.