WISPS of smoke rose through the air above the pub table. The two drinkers looked over to their friend enjoying his cigarette. Perhaps feeling left out, they pulled out their roll-ups and joined him.

All around the room, the ritual was carried out until the air was thick and stuck in the back of your throat.

It was too much for some non-smokers, who began frantically wafting their hands in search of some clean air.

At the rear of the room, a wooden "no smoking beyond this point" sign hung over an eating area, protecting the diners beyond.

This traditional scene could soon be a thing of the past as the pub chain JD Wetherspoon announced yesterday that it will ban smoking in all its outlets by May next year.

Patrons in the Darlington branch of JD Wetherspoon - The Tanners Hall -yesterday had mixed views on the situation.

Niki Maikos, 54, a smoker from Darlington, said that although non-smoking areas should be respected, there should be "a large area to enjoy smoking". His non-smoking friend stood to the side, waving his hands in front of his face and shaking his head.

John Lynn, a 48-year-old electrician from Darlington, is a non-smoker. He said: "I like the idea. Never force people, it is up to them, but better for me."

Steph Mason, 18, from Newton Aycliffe, has regular experience of smoke-filled bars. She said: "I work in a bar and it is 95 per cent smoke."

The company, which owns 650 pubs, will make 60 of its pubs smoke-free from May.

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin said: "An increasing percentage of the population are giving up smoking, and a significant number of people are staying away from pubs and restaurants because they are too smoky. We have pioneered non-smoking areas, but we now feel it is the right time to go one step further."

A Government white paper has set out a timetable in which all licensed premises could become non-smoking by 2009.

Amanda Sandford, of the Action on Smoking and Health pressure group, is delighted with the initiative, but is campaigning for change to other public places.

She said: "There should not be any exemptions. Any enclosed spaces should be smoke-free."