The chief medical officer says he considered resigning over the Government's failure to back a full ban on smoking in public places.
In an unusual public break with ministers, Sir Liam Donaldson criticised as "unworkable" proposals to allow smoking in pubs that do not serve food. He said he had only decided to stay in his job to argue for a complete ban.
He told the Commons Select Committee on Health that the compromise decision to allow smoking in some pubs and bars was the first time in seven years that ministers had overruled his advice. "It is rare for the Government to ignore the advice of its chief medical officer or fail to act on it.
"In the seven years I have been in post, this is the first situation I have encountered in which it has happened. It put me in a difficult position and I have had to think hard about what I want to do about that position. There are some areas where if your advice is ignored and it damages the public health you would have to consider resignation. I thought very, very carefully about that and my feeling is I have championed this so far ... I have spoken publicly on my opposition to government policy on this one area."
Sir Liam said Britain had been placed among international "laggards" on environmental health.
The Department of Health received 57,000 responses to its public consultation exercise on the proposals. To the embarrassment of ministers, more than 90 per cent rejected a partial ban and wanted an outright ban on smoking in public places.
Labour backbenchers are calling for a free vote on the issue later this month. Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour backbencher who has led the campaign, said: "I think this is devastating. Clearly, Liam Donaldson will have bolstered those who are prepared to vote against the Government free vote or no free vote."
He warned that the Government could lose a vote on the smoking ban in pubs and bars. "Why does the Government want to go looking for trouble?" he said.