The survey will fuel the war between the pro- and anti- smoking lobbies. It also reveals an increasing intolerance towards smokers in the workplace.
More than 85 per cent of organisations now have a no- smoking policy, which can range from a complete ban to provision of smoking rooms. And 94 per cent of big organisations - those with 1,000 employees or more - banned or limited smoking.
Changes in attitudes have come quickly - 77 per cent of the 731 companies questioned by Reed Personnel Services for the survey said they thought attitudes to smoking at work had become less favourable in the past five years. The main reasons were fear of future legal action against firms and the amount of time lost through smoking breaks.
Stephen Woodward, deputy director of Ash, the anti- smoking body, said the public had forced the change: 'In 1994 no employer would be excused by a court for continuing to put employees at risk by allowing smoking at work,' he said. 'It's not about ostracising smokers - it's not about whether you smoke, but where you smoke.'
But the director of Forest (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco), Chris Tame, called the report's findings 'morally obnoxious'. 'It's a revival of Victorian paternalism,' he said. 'It's a substitute for class prejudice to object to smoking because the majority of people who smoke are working-class. It's discrimination against a third of the adult population.'
A spokesman for the British Medical Association, which bans smoking everywhere in the BMA building, said it was sensible for a firm to recruit a non- smoker 'who is less likely to be off sick and is no danger to anyone else through smoking'.
But TGWU, the transport union, said it would prefer people to be chosen on their merits.
'We think a fairer way would be for workplaces to advertise that they were non- smoking and therefore employers would expect their employees not to smoke at work. That would make things a lot more open and above- board.'
A spokeswoman for the National Westminster Bank said: 'As far as we're concerned it's inapplicable. We wouldn't even ask someone as part of our recruitment process.'
Companies such as ICI still retain a fairly liberal policy. No smoking is allowed on plants, for safety reasons, but in general people are still allowed to smoke in offices.
'In ICI headquarters, people are allowed to smoke in the special smoking areas, in their offices and in shared offices if they have the agreement of the other staff,' said a spokesman. He added it would be unlikely that ICI would discriminate against smokers. 'It's not a criterion I use as a manager when recruiting staff.'
But an employee of one of the top three building societies, who works in Leeds, said she had fought her company's blanket ban on smoking anywhere in the building during office hours since it was implemented.
'The company is a good company but it's misguided,' she said. 'A blanket ban can't be implemented - everyone just nips behind the cupboard or into the loo.
'What I object to is having to lie. If we had the right policy no one would have to pretend.'
She said she had written countless letters to try to get the management to reconsider, and even became ill through the stress. 'I ended up on Valium. My family were horrified. I mean - which is worse, smoking or Valium? My boss suggested I resign, but I'm 46. Where would I get a job now?'
Not all companies ignore the plight of smokers facing a workplace ban. Some set aside special areas for smoking, while others provided nicotine patches at reduced prices. One company even offered to pay for staff to see a hypnotist to help them kick the habit.