London (CNSNews.com) - The British government Thursday proposed a ban on smoking in restaurants and pubs serving food, backing away from earlier suggestions that a total ban would be put into place.
Industry and pro-smoking groups expressed relief that the government shied away from a blanket ban covering all bars and clubs in England.
"The majority of people will be happy with this," said Simon Clark, director of the Freedom Organization for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (FOREST).
"We're obviously disappointed in that this is a massive shift in terms of restrictions on smoking in public places. However, it could have been a whole lot worse," Clark said.
"We accept that society is changing and people are less willing to put up with smoky atmospheres," he said. 'The important thing is that the government has recognized the concept of choice, for both smokers and for non-smokers."
Anti-smoking campaigners welcomed the proposals -- which would fulfill a campaign promise by Prime Minister Tony Blair's ruling Labor Party -- but decried that the ban will not be extended to all pubs and clubs.
"This bill will be a big step forwards for public health," said Deborah Arnott of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), adding that "the government will find it impossible to set safe standards for pubs and clubs that still allow smoking."
Arnott said her group would push for lawmakers to be given a free vote on a total ban and would be lobbying for a strengthening of the new smoking restrictions.
The British Medical Association also criticized the bill.
"I cannot believe that, after consulting for three months, this government has decided not to listen to the vast amount of conclusive evidence that secondhand smoke kills and what was needed was a total ban," said BMA Chairman James Johnson.
"They are letting down people all over the country leaving workers in England exposed to health dangers," Johnson said.
Within the United Kingdom, regional authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have proposed outright bans on indoor smoking modeled along those already in place in the Republic of Ireland and New York City.
Thursday's announcement came after last-minute negotiations within Blair's cabinet which delayed the planned introduction of the bill. Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who has been quoted as supporting a total ban, reportedly was pushing a clause that would restrict any smoking to sealed rooms away from bar areas.
The proposed bill will also ban smoking near the bar in pubs where cigarettes are still allowed.
"The Health Bill will include a ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces and public places which will cover 99 percent of the workforce," Hewitt said in a statement announcing the legislation.
The opposition Conservative Party argued that the government's proposals were muddled, unenforceable, and would hurt the health of people in poorer areas where pubs are less likely to serve food.
"The government's current approach is a U-turn on previous policy and its application is riddled with flaws," said Conservative health spokesman Andrew Lansley.
Unions representing bar workers and waiters were pushing for a total ban and said they were unhappy with the compromise.
"The government is shirking from its duty to look after everyone equality and marking some workers down for illness and worse," said Paul Kenny, acting secretary of the GMB union.
But a group representing cigarette industry workers said it was worried the new law would cost jobs.
"We believe there are more practical solutions to the issue than just banning smoking everywhere but pubs that don't serve food," said Brenda Warrington, chairwoman of the Tobacco Workers Association. "We also see no reason why smoking rooms, which have already helped ensure that 88 percent of workplaces have some form of smoking restriction, cannot continue to be used effectively in offices and factories across the U.K."
Although it is planning restrictions on smoking, the Blair government is at the same time pushing through legislation to allow pubs and restaurants to serve alcohol later into the night, subject to local approval.
The government has argued that relaxing a law which generally forbids selling alcohol past 11 p.m. will stagger bar closing times and result in less binge drinking and alcohol-related violence.
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