Leading article: The smoke clears

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However far one believes that a ban on smoking in England should extend - and we argued all along that the market should decide - there can be no excuse for the abject muddle with which the Government presented its case in the weeks, days and hours before yesterday's vote.

Indeed, even when the debate was in progress, it was very hard to divine precisely where the Government stood. What with pubs serving food, pubs not serving food and the specificities of prisons and barracks, not to speak of the Health Secretary's coyness about the status of private clubs, it was a good job the Government had allowed a free vote. Even with a three-line whip, MPs might still have been confused about how they were supposed to vote.

So it is with some relief that we report the clear decision of MPs to opt for simplicity: a smoking ban that will include pubs, food and non-food, and private clubs. And Patricia Hewitt voted with the majority.

We doubt, though, whether a law was needed at all. There had been signs for a while that the market was deciding quite effectively by itself. More and more pubs and restaurants had banned smoking, under pressure from staff or customers. Once the Government had decided to legislate, however, should it really have been so hard?

Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have already agreed their own bans. In Ireland and Italy, bans are already in effect. If these countries - with traditionally weaker governments and more ingrained smoking habits than our own - can ban smoking in all bars and restaurants, why was the whole process so complicated here?

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