It seems the writing is on the wall - smoking in the UK's pubs, bars, restaurants and hotels will be banned within the next few years. Certainly, most in the hospitality industry expect the ban to be imposed, and Tony Blair has made his own feelings perfectly clear. It may even become a Labour Party manifesto pledge for the next election, perhaps since the Government recognises that smoking is a soft target and a fairly easy political win.
To be honest, there is now overwhelming evidence about the dangers of smoking - it kills - and there is mounting proof that the damage to people's health from passive smoking is greater than previously thought. But while the health reasons for banning smoking in public places are clear-cut, the arguments against a ban have hardly been voiced.
Every time the issue is debated, the anti-smoking lobby points to the success of smoking bans in Ireland and US cities such as New York. However, it is too early for any meaningful statistics to have been gathered on the impacts of the ban, and anecdotal evidence in Ireland is not as clear-cut as the anti-smoking lobby (or the Irish government, for that matter) would have us believe. Outside Dublin's city centre, where large numbers of visitors keep the bars full, many bars and pubs are finding business tough, and some have been forced to close.
Whatever happens, the argument about banning smoking in public places in Britain must be weighed against the impact such a ban would have on hospitality businesses and on the democratic right of people to choose. According to the British Hospitality Association (BHA), 50% of pub-goers smoke.
Let's face it, people do have a right to choose whether they relax with a drink in a smoky bar, or in one that is smoke-free. Workers, it might be added, also have the same rights to work in a smoke-free workplace.
This is why Caterer backs the hospitality industry's preferred route of self-regulation, as an industry with a mix of smoking and non-smoking establishments is better for both customers and workers. Both then can vote with their feet and choose a smoking or non-smoking venue or workplace. The BHA reckons that 80% of establishments will have completely banned smoking or have non-smoking areas by the end of 2007.
Surely, the Government should allow the industry to get its house in order and provide its customers and workers with adequate choice over smoking - a path that it is clearly following - before imposing legislation. First, because imposing a ban smacks of the nanny state; and second, because we live in a mature democratic society, in which smokers and non-smokers both have the right to choose.