Pressure is to be put on restaurants either to ban smoking or provide separate rooms for smokers, with the launch of a national campaign by lobbying groups.
Health promotion workers across the country intend to call on restaurateurs in their area seeking face-to-face interviews in which they will push what they see as health and commercial benefits of clamping down on smoking.
Campaigners believe simply providing a designated non-smoking section is not enough to protect customers from smoke drift. They point to research carried out in 1992 which found 85% of cigarette smoke goes unfiltered into the air and is more harmful than that inhaled directly by the smoker.
The campaign has been launched jointly by the Health Education Authority (HEA) and National Asthma Campaign (NAC). The main focus will be restaurants aimed at families, both national chains and independent outlets.
A spokeswoman said it was aiming for a total smoking ban in restaurants which could not create completely separate rooms for smokers.
This approach is similar to that taken in New York City, where mayor Rudolph Giuliani last week signed a stringent bill under which restaurants with more than 35 seats can allow smoking only for private parties in separate rooms.
Alternatively, they can build separate smoking lounges, where no food may be served, although restaurants with a bar area can allow smoking in the immediate vicinity of the bar.
In 1993 a survey of 3,600 people carried out for the Department of the Environment found as many as 44% believed smoking in restaurants should be banned altogether. This was balanced by 51% who were happy to see designated smoking and non-smoking areas.
A campaign spokeswoman said all the national restaurant chains operated a smoking policy of some description. But on 8 March, National No Smoking Day, the campaign is to publish the results of two new surveys, which she said would show "overwhelming evidence" of public dissatisfaction with current smoking policies.
In contrast, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) is to start rolling out the Courtesy of Choice programme in the UK over the next two months. The programme was launched last October by the International Hotel Association in Sydney, where 90% of the IHA's members said smokers were an important part of their business.
The programme, which is being piloted at London's Langham Hilton hotel, concentrates on improving ventilation and building design to enable restaurateurs and hoteliers to accommodate both smokers and non-smokers.
The BHA is to carry out a survey of its own members' attitudes to smoking in the next three weeks, before publicising the programme and deciding how much to charge for it.
Michael Gottlieb, chairman of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain (RAGB), highlighted the commercial trap faced by many when considering smoking policies.
The RAGB takes no official line on smoking, but speaking personally, Mr Gottlieb said he was in favour of a universal ban on smoking in restaurants. However, he was not prepared to strike out on his own at his two London Smollensky's establishments.