LONDON -- Four hundred years after King James I denounced tobacco as "loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs," the British government is taking heed. It announced plans yesterday to ban smoking in most public places, including restaurants and any pub that serves food.
Antismoking activists welcomed the proposal, which would only apply to England, but criticized Health Secretary John Reid for letting smokers continue lighting up in some pubs and bars.
Still, it's a big step for a country that's had a long love-hate affair with tobacco. Britain's smoky pubs are at the heart of the nation's social life, and the trend in recent years toward "gastropubs" that serve meals as well as booze means the proposed ban will affect many drinking establishments.
Reid said only 20 percent of pubs and bars would be exempt from the ban because they serve no food. Private social clubs are also exempt.
If approved by Parliament, the ban would be phased in over four years, affecting pubs last, by the end of 2008.
"I think it's great and hopefully it will help me quit," said Dawn Benstead, having a cigarette in London's Covent Garden neighborhood.
At the Lamb and Flag pub nearby, though, smoker Steven Thomas predicted a ban would turn many voters against the government.
"I think a lot of people are sick of the nanny state," he said.
If Reid's proposal becomes law, Britain would be one of a handful of European countries to outlaw smoking in many public places since New York City made headlines with a strict ban last year.
Ireland became the first to ban smoking in all enclosed workplaces this year, and Norway and Sweden have followed suit. Last week, Scotland's government proposed banning smoking in all enclosed public places by 2006.
Officials in Wales have said they will seek authority from the central government to impose similar restrictions; no ban has been proposed in Northern Ireland.
Announcing the plan to the House of Commons, Reid said the measure was a fair compromise that respected people's right to make unhealthy choices, but not to harm others.
"This is a sensible solution, I believe, which balances the protection of the majority with the personal freedom of the minority in England," he said. "We will see smoke-free environments becoming the norm both at work and at leisure."
Health advocates, while they praised the plan as a step forward, faulted it for not going far enough and taking too long to get there.
"It makes no sense to allow smoking in some pubs," said Dr. James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association. "What about the health and lives of employees who work in them?"
The British Beer and Pub Association, a pub-owners' group, warned that a ban could prompt many to stop serving food, possibly causing customers to drink more.
"We're concerned that we could see a reversion back to the drinking dens we used to have 30 to 40 years ago when all we served in pubs was alcohol," said Christine Milburn, an association spokeswoman.
As part of the government's effort to further reduce the number of Britons who smoke -- now 26 percent -- the government also plans to require "hard-hitting" picture warnings on cigarette packs and new restrictions on tobacco advertising, Reid said.
Andrew Lansley, the opposition Conservative Party spokesman on health, dismissed the proposals as "gimmicks and a nanny state" and said they could lead smokers to light up more frequently at home, endangering their children's health.
He said voluntary antismoking measures by restaurant and pub owners would have been more effective than a government ban.
"The government's approach simply risks delaying progress," he said.
Reid's plan was part of a broad policy paper on public health, which also included measures to reduce obesity and alcohol abuse and boost sexual health.