Health campaigners have urged employers in England, including pubs and restaurants, to ban smoking ahead of the legal deadline.
The Health Act 2006 will require virtually all workplaces and enclosed public places to be smoke-free from summer 2007.
Although this leaves employers almost a year to prepare, the Smokefree Action Coalition, which includes a number of health organisations, has called on employers to introduce smoke-free policies as soon as possible.
It warned that employers that still allow smoking in enclosed workplaces are running serious risks under existing health and safety law.
Any employees made ill by exposure to other people’s smoke at work could sue their employers for negligence, citing a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Employers would be expected to know of the serious risks to health from second hand smoke as set out, for example, in a report by the government’s Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health.
The coalition advised all employers to consult employees and their trade unions when bringing in smoke-free policies and to make sure that any employee who does decide to quit is given helpful advice.
Ian Willmore, a spokesman for Action on Smoking and Health, said: “The Health Act will soon require virtually all workplaces and enclosed public places to go smoke-free. But there is no good reason for employers to wait for the Act to come into force.
“That will ensure a healthier workplace for staff and customers and avoid any legal risks for employers.”