John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, has secretly invited the bosses of leading pub chains to talks to head off a threatened smoking ban in public places. He has told them that if they can offer customers smoke-free areas, he will rule out an enforced ban.

Labour will decide later this month whether to include the measure in the party's next manifesto. Mr Reid is sceptical about a ban, believing it could cost the party votes among its natural supporters.

His officials are to set up a meeting with leading figures from the drinks and hospitality trade, The Independent on Sunday has learned.

One aide said he hoped that the industry would offer enough voluntary action to make a ban unnecessary.

"He's going to tell them that they are smoking in the last-chance saloon. He wants to hear what they have got to suggest to head off a ban," the aide said.

Although some smaller chains and independent landlords might struggle to offer smokeless drinking, the larger chains should seize the initiative, Mr Reid believes.

They could offer either smoke-free rooms in all pubs or set aside a number of entirely smoke-free pubs, officials believe.

The Health Secretary has repeatedly signalled he has grave doubts about the wisdom of introducing a total ban.

He caused an outcry when he suggested a ban had become a "middle-class obsession" and that smoking was the only pleasure some people enjoyed.

"His instincts are that, whatever people say, a ban would be very unpopular," the aide said. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics last week suggested Mr Reid's scepticism is well-founded, with a majority opposed to a ban. The ONS survey found growing support for partial restrictions in pubs. But most people said they would rather have designated non-smoking areas than an outright ban. Only 20 per cent thought it should be prohibited in every pub, as campaigners want.

Mr Reid, however, is under pressure to do more to reduce Britain's smoking rates as part of efforts to reduce the huge burden on the NHS of so-called "lifestyle diseases".

The official target on reducing smoking will be tightened tomorrow, increasing the pressure on ministers to take action.

More than a quarter of UK adults smoke. The Government is to commit itself to reducing that figure to 21 per cent by the end of the decade.

The target will one of the Department of Health's public service agreements agreed with the Treasury and announced as part of the comprehensive spending review.

Tony Blair has already made clear that legislation to allow local councils to ban smoking in the workplace is under consideration. The local bans could be included in a White Paper on public health to be published in the autumn.

The tobacco industry, meanwhile, is preparing to launch its campaign against any bans. Tim Lord, chief executive of the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association, said it had submitted evidence that passive smoking presented less of a risk than power lines or diesel fumes.

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