Smokers in the front line as the world takes steps to stub out cigarettes

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A SHIFT in the tide of opinion against tobacco has led to strict anti-smoking laws across the world.

Fears about the dangers of cigarettes, reinforced by the World Health Organisation and other groups with events such as this week's World No- Tobacco Day, have led to many governments introducing tough legislation.

In the United States, where smokers have long been treated as social outcasts, many states have laws which ban smoking in banks, shops and other public buildings. In California, a hard-line smoking ban on virtually all public places was extended from the beginning of this year to include bars and the bar areas of restaurants.

Singapore has led the way among Asian nations with its anti-smoking laws. Shopping malls, pedestrian underpasses and various outdoor public places were recently added to a long list of areas where the habit is strictly forbidden.

But though the authorities in Singapore and California justify their draconian stance by pointing to reduced levels of smoking, many people believe that similar laws would not work in Britain.

Amanda Sandford, of the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said yesterday: "It wouldn't be appropriate to go along Californian lines in this country because there would be an outcry and people would ignore it. You have to win people over by a gradual approach.

"The attitude in this country has changed. People are more prepared to say `yes I do mind if you smoke'. It is only really in leisure places like pubs and clubs where smokers don't feel that they have to ask to light up."

In France, smoking is forbidden in all public areas, but this has proved difficult to enforce, especially in bars and restaurants where the 1992 law is often disregarded. Ms Sandford said: "France is a good example of where they made the mistake of introducing a law before they had public support."

No country has a bigger smoking problem than China, where it has been estimated that two-thirds of adult males are smokers. Ms Sandford said: "Millions of people smoke there and the numbers are rising. The government there is beginning to realise that they will have to control it."

In Italy, smoking is banned in most public places, including museums, concert halls, cinemas and theatres. In Sweden, smoking is banned, or restricted to certain areas, in shops, banks, schools and restaurants.

The World Health Organisation expressed disappointment yesterday at the British government's decision. A spokeswoman said: "We strongly support measures to control smoking in public places. There are many reasons for this. Passive smoking has been shown to be harmful to people's health. In addition, it sets an example to young people by showing that governments are taking the problem seriously."