'I'M awfully sorry,' I said. 'I hate to mention it. But I'm afraid your cigarette is bothering me.'

My neighbour at the bar of the Coach and Horses in Soho turned to me in surprise and drew deeply on his Marlboro, inhaling sharply through his nicotine-stained teeth.

'What?'

'Your cigarette,' I repeated, flapping my hand in front of my face. 'It's the smoke you see. I'm not terribly keen on it.'

He put down his tumbler of Scotch and stared at me through narrowed eyes, then he threw back his head and released a bluish-grey plume from the corner of his mouth. I could hear his black leather jacket creaking as he shifted on his stool. 'I don't give a flying f***,' he informed me in an even but husky tone.

I was quite prepared for this. His negative and unco-operative attitude didn't worry me at all. My literature from the pressure group Ash - Action on Smoking and Health - told me exactly how to handle such situations. They had sent me a fact-filled information pack entitled 'Breathing Space - The Campaign for Smoke-Free Living', which was brimming with suggestions about how to achieve a smoke-free atmosphere, on public transport, at work, and in restaurants, cafes and pubs. It also contained all the facts about passive smoking, and a laminated Breathing Space 'crib sheet' covered with handy hints.

A committed non-smoker, I had already read it from cover to cover and spoken to their campaign manager, Karen Williams. 'The issue is not whether people smoke,' she told me emphatically, 'but about where they do so. We at ASH are encouraging non-smokers to be much more assertive about their rights.'

My churlish fellow-drinker in the Coach and Horses continued to pollute the atmosphere, so I pointed to the small sign above the bar: 'Customers are requested to refrain from smoking in this part of the bar.'

'You see,' I said, 'it is actually a no-smoking area. Ihope you don't mind my pointing that out.'

He glanced around the crowded room. 'Everyone else is smoking.'

'I know. I'm going to ask them to stop too,' I said. 'It's not just you.' I felt my chest constricting and my contact lenses began to itch. I glanced at my crib sheet. 'Don't just complain. State clearly what you want. Be positive and polite.'

'Please would you put out your cigarette?' I asked him. 'I'd be extremely grateful.'

'No.'

'But I'd just like to point out that your cigarette could give me cancer.'

'I don't care.'

'It will almost certainly give you cancer too, and shorten your life.'

'Good.'

'Did you know that 83 per cent of the population want a ban on smoking in public?'

'Why don't you piss off?'

I went in search of the landlord, the legendary Norman Balon, and asked him why he allowed smoking in the non-

smoking part of his pub. This question was met with a guffaw.

'Because of the money, duckie. I've been a landlord for 50 years and if it was profitable to be running a no-smoking pub I'd be running one, wouldn't I?' His companions at his table in the saloon all nodded in mute agreement.

'Let me tell you something,' Mr Balon resumed in an undertone. 'Four non-smoking pubs opened up round here, and they all had to change because they did such bad business.'

I decided to have one more try and went back to the bar. I remembered the advice given in 'Breathing Space'. 'Make it clear that your objection to smoke is based on health and well-being, not moral grounds.'

'Did you realise that every year hundreds ofpeople die from the effects of passive smoking?' I asked Nick Fanchini, a marketing consultant in his mid-twenties.

'Several hundred, that's nothing,' he said, drawing on a Gauloise. 'Did you know that 6,000 people in Europe die every year after being struck by lightning?'

'But there are 60 highly toxic substances in cigarette smoke, including known carcinogens such as benzene.'

He took a sip of beer. 'My only objection to smoking is that I'm pouring money into the coffers of capitalist multi-national millionaires. Why don't you have a go at them?' My information pack contained no advice on what to do when smokers got philosophical.

'Don't you feel at all worried, or indeed guilty, that your cigarette is endangering my health?' I persisted.

'No,because you can bog off somewhere else,' he replied. 'Anyway, smoking prevents Alzheimer's. I read it in the New Scientist last week. Cigarette?'

So much for assertiveness. Not surprisingly, the pro-

smoking lobby, fronted by the pressure group Forest, hold Ash's new initiative in contempt. 'It's the same old story,' their spokesman, Chris Tame, had said when I spoke to him a couple of days earlier. 'Ash have been using these scare tactics about passive smoking for years. The bulk of the scientific research does not support it. The market will decide this one, not those fanatics at Ash.'

The market did indeed seem to be on the side of the smokers, I reflected as I left the Coach and Horses and went into some of the neighbouring restaurants. 'Do you have a non-smoking area?' I asked Melissa, the assistant manageress of the Soho Brasserie. 'No, I'm afraid we don't,' she said, surveying the fog-filled room. 'It just doesn't seem to work. I'm really terribly sorry.'

I crossed the street and went into the Est restaurant, which was totally befugged. Spirals and swirls of blue smoke hung in the air and pirouetted in the spotlights over the bar.

'I hate smoking,' said the co-manager, Patrice Gouty, vehemently. 'But all my customers seem to do it.' He lowered his voice and pointed to a woman seated in the corner. There were three empty packets of Camel on the table in front of her. 'She's one of my best customers,' he said, in a whisper, 'so I can't ask her not to do it.'

'But did you realise that 70 per cent of smokers think that all restaurants should provide no-smoking areas?' I asked him. He shrugged in a Gallic sort of way as he opened the door for me to leave. A bonfire- sized cloud of pale grey smoke billowed out into the cold night air. 'Just look at that,' he said with a pained expression.

I decided I had done enough campaigning for one night. I headed for home on an almost empty number 19 bus, and surveyed with quiet satisfaction the 'No Smoking, Maximum Penalty pounds 1,000' notice.

Here at least was a clean, untainted atmosphere, I reflected, as I opened my book. But as we passed Sadler's Wellsand sped towards the Angel a sharp but unmistakable sound emanated from upstairs - that of a match being struck. And within 30 seconds a familiar, tarry aroma was wafting through the air. I closed my book, rang the bell, and walked the rest of the way.

The Breathing Space pack is pounds 5 from Ash (071-935 3519)

(Photograph omitted)

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