SOME of the region's largest urban areas are ready to step up their fight against smoking, if Health Secretary John Reid gives them the go-ahead.

The White Paper on public health, due to be published today, is expected to encourage local authorities to take further steps to restrict smoking in public places.

Such encouragement will go down well with authorities in Newcastle and Middlesbrough, which are in the vanguard of North-East local authorities looking to take action to restrict smoking.

Elsewhere across the region, any move to make it easier for councils to impose local restrictions is likely to be widely taken up.

But it is in Newcastle and Middlesbrough where rapid changes are likely to be seen.

The deadly effect of smoking on the North-East was highlighted in a report last week, which showed that almost half of men who die in parts of the region are killed by a "smoking epidemic".

In County Durham and Tees Valley, an estimated 2,500 people die every year because of smoking.

It is understood that Mr Reid will allow pubs and restaurants to apply to their local authority for a tightly-controlled smoking licence.

Earlier this month, Newcastle councillors agreed to work with other local agencies towards developing a smoke-free city.

It follows the lead set by Liverpool City Council to clamp down on smoking in pubs, clubs, restaurants and public buildings.

Newcastle councillors want to ensure all council-owned and operated buildings are smoke-free by 2010.

Last night, a spokeswoman for Newcastle City Council said: "We would be keen to use any new powers given to us by the Government. We want to educate people about smoking, but we may reach the smoke-free target sooner than we think."

Middlesbrough Borough Council recently announced that from December 1 a smoking ban will be imposed on all public venues it runs - including leisure centres, golf centres, Middlesbrough Theatre and the town hall.

Last night a spokesman said: "Our next step is to engage with the licensed, retail and restaurant trade to try to persuade them to go down the same route. It is certainly our hope to make Middlesbrough a smoke-free town."