Ministers are to unveil proposals to ban smoking in public places, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Local authorities are set to be given the power to outlaw the habit in what critics will claim is an attempt to introduce a national ban by the back door.
The Government will include the measure in a consultation paper this spring, with legislation this autumn. This would allow councils to ban smoking in pubs, restaurants, shopping centres and other public places.
John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, has repeatedly denied that he plans to implement a national ban on smoking in public. The Department of Health has been working for months on proposals that would allow local bans, however. Critics will say that allowing local councils to ban smoking in public places helps the Government evade responsibility for tackling a thorny political issue.
A consultation on public health, due to be published later this month or in early March, will include the option of giving councils powers to outlaw the habit at work and in public places. It will be followed by a White Paper on new measures needed to improve the nation's health, due to be published this summer.
Dr Reid, a smoker himself until recently, is acutely aware of the political dangers of imposing "nanny-state" policies. He will say smoking in public places should be outlawed only where there is genuine local demand.
A coalition of councillors and health officials in six major cities is already preparing to push for local by-laws outlawing smoking.
Pat Karney, of the Tobacco Free Alliance, said it was hoped that Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, Brighton and Bristol would simultaneously ban smoking. Previous attempts by cities have foundered because local authorities do not currently have sufficient powers to enforce bans.
Tony Blair said recently,as he launched the Labour Party consultation, the Big Conversation: "It won't surprise you to know that I prefer to do it locally."
Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, who called for a national ban last year, has been persuaded by evidence from the US that local bans may quickly lead to wider prohibition.
"What you saw in California was that a lot of very local bans built up to a critical mass enabling a statewide ban. We are obviously hoping something similar might happen here," said a senior Whitehall official.
An estimated three million people in the UK are exposed to second-hand smoke at work. Sir Liam suggested a national ban would also encourage one in five smokers to stop smoking.
A ban on smoking in public places in Vancouver, Canada, resulted in a fall in the proportion of people smoking from 22 per cent to 15 per cent.
Anti-smoking pressure groups welcomed the Government's move. Naj Dehlavi, of ASH, said: "While we of course want to see a national ban this will be a huge step in the right direction."
Smoking is just one of a series of public health issues the Government has to tackle this spring. Measures to curb obesity and sexually transmitted diseases will also be unveiled in the consultation.
Dr Reid has called an "obesity summit" to discuss measures such as banning television advertisements for fast food and sweets. "This is not a matter for government alone - it's an issue for individuals, parents and industry, too, among others," he said.