Cigarettes are no longer welcome in pubs and restaurants in Northern Ireland, the first area of the UK to introduce a smoking ban.

Yesterday many bar and restaurant owners followed New York and the Irish Republic by outlawing the habit in their venues, 18 months before the ban becomes official, reinforcing suggestions that a ban will follow in England in Wales.

The Northern Ireland Office minister Shaun Woodward said of the implications for a ban in England: "I would hope this would help some of my ministerial colleagues who would be cautious about going down this route. Over the past five months as minister for health I can see the people of Northern Ireland are as progressive as any other part of the UK can be."

He made the suggestion of an immediate ban in pubs after announcing that a ban on smoking in all workplaces would come into effect in April 2007.

Mr Woodward, a former smoker, said: "Bar and restaurant owners do not have to wait until 2007 to do the responsible thing. Right now they can put up signs saying no smoking."

From April 2007, smokers will not be able to have a cigarette in their place of work, in a bar, nightclub or restaurant. The only exception could be in prisons or psychiatric institutions. Mr Woodward said he would be seeking medical advice on whether the ban should apply there or whether cigarettes were a calming influence on inmates.

After meeting the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, this summer, the minister was concerned that a partial ban ­ with smoking permitted in bars where food is not served ­ would have created a two-tier workforce, with some workers exposed to the dangers of smoke on a daily basis.

The ban brings Northern Ireland into line with the Irish Republic, which became the first European country to impose a ban in March 2004. Norway and Italy have followed suit, and Scotland will bar smoking in workplaces from April.

Nicola Carruthers, of the Federation of the Retailed Licensed Trade in Northern Ireland, said that Mr Woodward was using the province to test the implications of a smoking ban in England. She said that in rural Ireland pubs had lost 20 to 30 per cent of trade and 400 pubs had closed.

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