THREE years ago today the smoking ban was introduced in public places in England and Wales. We gauge its effects so far.

IT feels like a lifetime ago, but as recently as June 2007 smokers could still light up in a busy pub while they enjoyed a pint.

Non-smokers had to contend with smoky bar rooms and restaurants – along with clothes that smelt of smoke.

But that all changed on July 1, 2007, when the last Labour government’s smoking ban in public places came into effect.

Health bosses predicted an improvement in public health as more smokers gave up.

But campaigners feared the legislation would lead to the closure of hundreds or even thousands of pubs as smokers lit up in their own homes instead.

Three years on and more than 70 pubs in East Lancashire have closed, but opinion in the industry is divided on whether the smoking ban can take the blame.

Geoff Sutcliffe, chairman of the East Lancashire Licensed Victuallers' Association (LVA) and landlord of the Rising Sun, Brownhill, near Blackburn, said many pubs had struggled in the past three years, particularly those on the edge of towns with punters who visit on foot.

“I think it has led to the loss of a lot of customers in your normal, run-of-the-mill pubs,” he said.

“Eating pubs or ones in town centres have not done too badly. But, overall, trade has suffered a lot.”

Mr Sutcliffe said the ‘general feeling’ among LVA members was that pubs should have segregated smoking and non-smoking rooms.

The argument is backed up by the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA).

It estimates that as many as 5,000 English and Welsh pubs have shut as a direct consequence of the smoking ban.

Replicated across East Lancashire, with its population of 520,000, that would mean the closure of up to 50 inns.

BBPA spokesman Lee Le Clercq, echoing Mr Sutcliffe, said the pubs that had struggled most had been the typical ‘Rovers Return’: pubs that historically lacked investment, were small and without car parks and did not offer food.

But not all publicans are in agreement that the smoking ban sounded the deathknell for East Lancashire’s pubs.

Some have pointed out that pubs which have actively diversified, such as gastropubs, have flourished despite the recession.

Mark Chung, chairman of the East Lancashire Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), said: “From a personal point of view, it is nice to go into a pub and not come out stinking of smoke.

"My own local pub in Trawden has not been affected at all by the ban.

"I think the smoking ban has been used as an excuse for not very good pubs shutting down.

"CAMRA believes that the future of pubs lies in offering more than simply a pint and a fag.”

The ban in 2007 was also met by some estimates that beer sales would plummet.

However, that has been contradicted by Burnley-based cask ale brewery Moorhouse’s, which has increased sales year-on-year.

The firm, which owns six pubs in the North West, is also about to move into a new £2million brewery building in Accrington Road.

Managing director David Grant said: “In our own pubs trade is down by about 10 per cent, but I don’t know how much of that I put down to the smoking ban and how much I put down to the recession.

"It may have affected pubs but the smoking ban is not everything and cask ale sales are actually going up.

"My own personal opinion is that it has been used as an excuse for bad pubs shutting.”

Blackburn brewer Thwaites recently put more than 10 struggling East Lancashire pubs up for sale with ‘restrictive covenants’ preventing them re-opening as pubs.

The brewer has also said it was focusing more on bottled beer sold through supermarkets due to the struggles in pubs.

Others are enjoying success thanks to diversification.

Gastropubs and restaurants in areas like the Ribble Valley and rural Pendle have escaped the mire – and grown even more successful.

Among those enjoying a boost have been Ribble Valley Inns, the group led by chef supremo Nigel Haworth which owns the Northcote hotel in Langho, the Three Fishes near Whalley and the Clog and Billycock near Blackburn.

Bosses there enforced a no-smoking rule even before 2007’s ban, fearing a smoky environment would mar customers’ enjoyment of the award-winning fare on offer.

East Lancashire-based Paul Heathcote, who owns restaurants across the North West, added: “In all honesty the smoking ban has been beneficial for us.

"People just go outside and smoke, and our staff can enjoy a smoke-free environment.”

The smoking ban was brought in for health reasons.

And as you would expect the NHS, which says A&E admissions for heart attacks have reduced by 2.4 per cent, is pleased with its effect.

Peter Pendlebury, a health development specialist at NHS East Lancashire, said: “It has improved the environment people work, eat and drink in, and we have seen more people asking about stopping smoking.

"That’s a good thing.”