Pub operator JD Wetherspoon is the first major pub company to take the bold step of stubbing out smoking in its 650 pubs, a move that will protect the health of its 18,000 staff.
Wetherspoon's, which has had smoke-free areas in its pubs for more than 10 years, announced on Monday that 60 of its sites would become no-smoking pubs by 4 May and that all units would ban smoking by May 2006. This is at least 18 months ahead of the Government's proposals to ban smoking in pubs that serve food.
"An increasing percentage of the population are giving up smoking and a significant number of people are staying away from pubs and restaurants because they are too smoky," said founder Tim Martin.
"The Government's approach to the issue of a smoking ban does not make sense, since pubs can get around it by giving up food sales. We believe the Wetherspoon's approach of a complete ban after a period of notice is the right one."
The pub company was an early supporter of Caterer's Stub out Smoking campaign, which successfully petitioned the Government to introduce a complete ban on smoking in enclosed public places to safeguard the health of hospitality workers.
However, despite the momentum behind a smoking ban in public places, none of Wetherspoon's rivals look set to follow suit. Mitchells & Butlers, Spirit Group and Wolverhampton & Dudley, which control more than 8,000 of the UK's 65,000 pubs, said they were surprised by the decision but would not be rushing in smoking restrictions.
Spirit Group said: "In September 2004 Spirit played a leading role in developing the British Beer & Pub Association commitments to move progressively towards a presumption of no smoking in our pubs by the end of 2009. We already have no smoking at the bar in about 70% of our pubs and no-smoking areas in a third of outlets."
Derek Andrew, managing director of Wolverhampton & Dudley's managed division, Pathfinder, said: "We will look at converting some of our food-led pubs to no-smoking first, and a minimum of 80% of floor space in our new sites will be smoke-free."
Mitchells & Butlers retail director Simon Ward said: "We advocate smoking rooms for rural and village pubs as a better step on the way to the presumption of no smoking in pubs than an outright ban."
Other pressure groups have also welcomed Wetherspoon's announcement. The TUC said it would save staff from the dangers of lethal second-hand smoke.