The days when Hampshire smokers can light up at work or in the pub will be a thing of the past if a public smoking ban is introduced throughout the United Kingdom. Sarah Cole and Ian Drury report on a move likely to leave many of the county's estimated327,000 smokers fuming - but latest figures show a third of them will die from smoking...

A FUTURE without fags. For non-smokers, it would be a welcome breath of fresh air, but outlawing lighting up in public places would hit smokers hard.

About 327,000 people across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight smoke - almost 25 per cent of the population. In Southampton 35 per cent still smoke - putting themselves at risk of potentially fatal illnesses including cancers, heart failure and respiratory diseases.

What would life be like for them if they were unable to enjoy a ciggie with a pint in their local, or savour a smoke after dinner in their favourite restaurant?

For health campaigners, a total smoking ban cannot come soon enough. Government figures show one-third of all deaths in Southampton between 1998 and 2002 were caused by the habit. More than one in four people in other parts of Hampshire were victims of smoking during that period.

Bans have already been introduced in Ireland and New York, where they have led to thousands of smokers kicking the habit. This week, Scotland announced it would follow suit with a comprehensive ban on smoking in enclosed public places.

Legislation is expected to be introduced before Christmas, with a ban likely to come into force in spring 2006.

The ban will make it illegal for any smoker to light up in a pub, nightclub, private club, hotel, restaurant or at work. Persistent offenders will be fined up to £1,000, while licensees who fail to implement the ban could risk penalties of £2,500. Now smokers are waiting with bated breath to hear whether a similar ban on smoking in public places will be extended to England and Wales.

Former health minister John Denham, Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, said the statistics were "very worrying".

He said: "Everyone knows that smoking is a major cause of early deaths. This means that we need to re-double our efforts to encourage people to quit."

Mr Denham expressed reservations about whether the government should introduce a total ban on smoking in public.

He said: "As people become moreaware of the dangers of smoking and passive smoking, and the fact it is considered less acceptable to inflict it on other people, I think fewer people will smoke.

"The nearest analogy would be to drink-driving, where changes in society's views made it socially unacceptable.

"We need to see whether we get to a point where the government needs to legislate on smoking, or if it will die out naturally."

Campaigners including anti-smoking group ASH want to see Tony Blair announce nationwide action in next week's public health White Paper.

Among them is the charity Macmillan Cancer Relief, which is currently building a £1m cancer support and information centre at Southampton General Hospital.

This month, the organisation launched a lung cancer awareness campaign, with the aim of getting smokers and ex-smokers to seek medical advice if they have any symptoms. In Hampshire, an average of just 6.2 per cent of people survive a diagnosis of lung cancer.

Nationally, 94 men and women are diagnosed with the disease every day.

Branches of public service union UNISON in Hampshire would also welcome a ban on smoking in public.

A spokesman for UNISON's southern region office said: "UNISON would welcome legislation which bans smoking in public places.

"The evidence is clear - passive smoking kills.

"It is time the government stopped prevaricating on this issue and started to protect workers and the public from this deadly substance."

Research has shown exposure to environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer by between 20 and 30 per cent.

Recent figures showed health chiefs spent a staggering £56m treating illnesses linked to smoking in just one year.

A total of 32,967 people received treatment for medical conditions caused by smoking cigarettes in 2002-3 - at an average cost of £1,700 each.

The huge bill included GP visits, prescriptions, treatment and operations.

In Hampshire, there have already been widespread moves to encourage smoke-free public places. Hampshire County Council is the latest local authority to unveil plans to ban smoking from all its offices and vehicles.

The plan received the thumbs-up from the council's employment panel yesterday but still needs final approval early next year.

Meanwhile Eastleigh councillors have voted to make the borough a smoke-free zone within five years, with a total ban on lighting up in public places including pubs and clubs.

Southampton City Council has plans to stub out smoking among its 6,000 employees by April.

In February this year, the Traveller's Rest in Hythe became one of the first smoke-free pubs in Hampshire.

Owners Andrea and Brian Morrison decided to call time on cigarettes after canvassing their regulars at the pub in Hart Hill.

Today the couple said they had no regrets about introducing a ban on smoking.

Brian said: "Going smoke-free can be a daunting step but it has paid off for us. We have noticed an up-turn in business. We have a customer comment book and every single one says how nice it is to come to a smoke-free environment. It is also great for staff, who would normally have to go home with their clothes stinking of cigarette smoke.

"We do have members of staff who are smokers themselves but they don't mind the ban either.

"I think every area should have at least one or two non-smoking pubs to give people a choice."

But the idea of a smoke-free Hampshire is not popular with everyone.

Smokers' lobby group Forest says it is vital the needs of Hampshire's smokers are met. The organisation insists most people favour restrictions on smoking, as opposed to a total ban.

Director Simon Clark said: "Tobacco is a legal product and there are a great many people who choose to smoke and don't want to give up.

"It is unreasonable that they should be banned from smoking in all indoor public places."

QUITTERS offers free, confidential advice, support and information to help smokers kick the habit. For more information, telephone 023 8051 5221. Alternatively, contact the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0800 169 0169.