Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) will shortly start a campaign for people who have suffered ill health through passive smoking in the workplace, as well as in public spaces, to seek compensation through the courts under existing law.
'Until now we have adopted a 'softly softly' approach,' said Stephen Woodward, Ash's deputy director. 'We have tried the carrot and now we are going to use the stick.'
Ash will back moves to have employers prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to provide a risk- free environment, and encourage actions for negligence under common law against those responsible for public spaces such as pubs and restaurants.
Medical and scientific evidence suggests that at least one non-smoker dies every day in Britain from lung cancer as a result of inhaling others' smoke, and the 1988 Froggat report highlighted the link between passive smoking and illnesses including cancer, bronchitis and asthma.
Since then several legal actions have been initiated, but even the most celebrated - that of a Stockport council worker who won pounds 15,000 compensation from her employer - have not come to court and thereby set a legal precedent.
Ash believes that it should now start a more aggressive campaign, believing that the threat of substantial compensation payments will force businesses to look anew at the commercial balance between meeting the needs of Britain's dwindling band of 17 million smokers and the rest of the population.
'We believe that the number of workplaces and public spaces where smoking is banned would escalate considerably with more litigation,' said Mr Woodward. 'Unfortunately this step has become necessary because of the slow progress that has been made.'
One of the most significant smoking vetoes yet came into force yesterday, when British Airways banned smoking on long-haul flights to Australia. The longest leg is a 13-hour marathon to Singapore.
The airline says a growing number of its customers, including some smokers themselves, prefersmoke-free environments when they travel.
Cynics maintain, though, that the ban is equally the result of the potential legal threat from passengers forced to endure a smoky atmosphere, with Qantas already facing legal action by a passenger under the Australian equivalent of the trades description act.
As many as 85 per cent of firms in Britain now operate some kind of smoking restriction in the workplace, and more than 35 per cent ban smoking on the premises entirely.
One of the first companies to have a no-smoking policy was the computer giant IBM, which restricts its 12,000 employees to smoking in designated rooms on each floor of its offices. Shell UK also favours restriction to certain areas.
The Abbey National, many banks in the City and more than 30 per cent of Civil Service departments ban smoking completely.
Smoking is also forbidden aboard National Express coaches, many local bus companies, London Underground trains and services on British Rail's Network SouthEast. On InterCity trains, 30 per cent of carriages are set aside for smokers.
Restaurants tend to favour smokers, providing smoking and non-smoking areas in line with recommendations by the Tobacco Advisory Council (TAC), sponsored by cigarette manufacturers. 'Many of the restaurateurs who are our members are like doctors and nurses: they smoke themselves,' said Caroline de Laforce of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain.
But three years ago Tim Bricknell-Webb, a reformed smoker who owns the highly regarded Percy's Restaurant in Harrow, north London, decided to make his venue a smoke- free zone.
'I'm trying to give people a sense of enjoyment, of taste and smell,' he said. 'Smoking detracts from that. In the end I have gained more custom than I have lost. It's an 80-cover restaurant and it's full Thursday, Friday and Saturday.'
In pubs, smokers remain as welcome as ever. Tony Payne, of the Federation of Licensed Victuallers, said: 'Quite a few pubs have tried no-smoking areas and it's not what people want. They end up with empty rooms. People go out in groups with their friends and usually at least one wants to smoke.'
But Peter Anderson, the TAC's political affairs manager, believes smokers are becoming outcasts. 'They're being treated like social lepers. It's not as bad as the US, but it's getting worse.
'The danger at the moment, when looking at smoking in public and work places, seems to be the interpretation that all smoking most cease.'
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