PRESSURE was growing on the Assembly Government to clarify when a smoking ban in public places would be introduced, after MPs voted for a full ban in England and to devolve the issue to Cardiff Bay.
The Assembly, which has already voted for a ban in principle, now has the power to introduce one, but Welsh Ministers face a tricky decision as to whether it wants to introduce the ban in the run-up to the May 2007 Assembly elections. The English ban is pencilled in for summer 2007.
A committee of AMs that examined the issue recommended a "long lead-in time" to explain the policy to the public - a lesson learned from the Irish government, which ran a 12-month publicity campaign ahead of its own ban. It also noted that it is easier to introduce a ban in good weather.
MPs had been given a free vote after the Government admitted its plans for a compromise partial ban in England faced defeat. An amendment backing a full ban was passed by 453 votes to 125.
A spokeswoman for the Assembly Government said last night, "The legislation in the Health Bill opens the door for us to introduce a full ban in due course. Legislation will probably be implemented in Wales some time next year."
Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who voted for the full ban in English pubs and restaurants, said, "It's a matter for the Assembly, and what I've provided for in the current Bill is to have powers devolved to do as it sees fit. The sooner the better as far as I'm concerned."
Asked if this meant ahead of the Assembly elections, he said, "I would like to see the ban brought in as soon as possible, but it's a question of whether it's actually practical in terms of getting the necessary regulations in place."
Those regulations could take until September to be passed in Cardiff Bay, making it unlikely the ban would be in place next spring.
Peter Black, a Liberal Democrat AM who sat on the Assembly's Smoking in Public Places Committee, said, "I honestly think the committee's recommendations are quite clear about the run-in time and the experience of Ireland. That's something the Assembly Government should take full cognisance of."
In Westminster the Tories said the result was an "utter humiliation" for Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, who argued for a partial ban at the Health Bill's second reading in November, but then said she would vote to outlaw all smoking in pubs.
Prime Minister Tony Blair granted Labour MPs a free vote after it became clear that the partial ban promised in the party's election manifesto was facing almost certain defeat at the hands of backbench rebels.
Cancer Research UK yesterday sent fake cigarette packets to all MPs outlining the arguments for a blanket ban.
And a survey by the NHS Confederation found that 84% of NHS chief executives favoured a complete ban.
The Department of Health also announced there would be a massive increase in the fines for failing to stop people smoking in banned areas in England to £2,500 - more than 10 times the original proposal of a £200 fine.
Spot fines of £200 will also be introduced for failing to display no-smoking signs, with the possible penalty if the issue goes to court increasing fivefold to £1,000.