LONDON -- After a torturous debate, the British Parliament voted overwhelmingly yesterday for a total ban on smoking in indoor public places in England - a move that seemed certain to end the time-hallowed traditions of the smoky British pub, where a pint of ale and a cigarette once defined the downtime of generations.
The decision, by an unexpectedly high margin of 384-184, brought England into line with Ireland, which barred smoking in public places in March 2004, and with other parts of Britain, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, where bans are to come into force over the next 13 months. The local parliament in Wales has also said it will seek a full ban. The English ban is expected to come into effect next year.
The issue was seen as so divisive in the ranks of the governing Labor Party that legislators were given what is called a free vote, enabling them to defy the party line if they wished.
Yesterday's ballot overturned the re-election campaign position of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, which had supported a partial ban permitting smoking in private members' clubs and pubs that do not serve food. The compromise would have permitted smokers to congregate in drinks-only pubs.
Foes of that policy - including Patricia Hewitt, Blair's health secretary, and, according to the Press Association news agency, Blair himself - had said passive smoking would damage the health of workers in any club or pub, whether food was served or not.
"This legislation is good news for tens of thousands of bar staff up and down the country," said Steve Webb, a legislator from the Liberal Democratic opposition.
Hewitt said that the arguments over banning smoking in private members' clubs were "very finely balanced," but that a total ban provided a "level playing field" among all premises serving alcohol.
The government says about 600,000 people will give up smoking when the new law is enforced. "This bill is going to save thousands of people's lives," Hewitt said, comparing the ban to the legal requirement to wear safety belts in cars.
Some smokers, interviewed on British television, said the decision was one more sign of a "nanny state" encroaching into private lives. But campaigners from many anti-smoking groups welcomed the move.
Alex Markham, the head of Cancer Research UK, called the ban "the most important advance in public health for 50 years" since researchers linked smoking to lung cancer.