SCOTTISH pubs are breaking the smoking ban by running after-hours "smoke-easies", where regulars can flout the law and enjoy a cigarette with their pint.
The Scotsman has learned that some licensees wait until tourists and other strangers leave their bar before locking the doors and allowing trusted groups of regulars to light up. Some establishments even have a secret supply of ashtrays they bring out for the occasions.
Pro-smoking activists said last night they were not surprised the "smoke-easies", which appeared in Dublin and New York after bans were introduced there, had also been imported to Scotland.
But the Scottish Executive warned that anyone caught running illegal after-hours smoking sessions for customers in defiance of the ban, which came into force in March, will be prosecuted.
A number of illegal "smoke-easies", reminiscent of the speakeasies set up in the United States during the Prohibition era when alcohol was banned, have sprung up across Scotland.
Forest, the pro-smoking lobby, said such "lock-ins" had started up in Ireland and New York after their smoking bans were imposed.
Latest figures from New York, which implemented a ban in 2003, show that the city's health department issued 601 'violations' in the 12 months to May to premises operating "smoke-easies".
One smoker, who has been invited three times to join a selected group after closing time in his local pub in the east of Scotland, said: "We tend to sit and wait to be given the signal. Then the door was slammed and locked and the ashtrays came out. I think the manager drew the curtains as well.
"There was about ten-12 of us, men and women from ages about early 20s to their 70s, and we had another couple of drinks and a smoke.
"It felt like such a treat. I think in a way it's nostalgic for me because I associate pubs with the smell of smoke and beer. Although in general I think the ban is a good thing, it will be horrible for people being forced to go outside on cold winter nights."
Another smoker who drinks in a pub in Argyll said: "It really is like a speakeasy. The non-locals leave, the doors are locked and the curtains drawn - and out come the ashtrays.
"All the staff and regulars get another drink and light up, and reminisce about the days when they could have a civilised smoke in their local."
Simon Clark, the director of Forest, said he was not surprised that some licensees and smokers were finding a way round the Executive's ban.
"None of the pubs will admit to doing it," he said. "They don't want to advertise it because they are afraid of being fined or shut down. It's certainly not widespread, and smokers will have the sense to keep quiet about it for fear of their local pub losing its licence," he said.
"I'm not in the least surprised. The same thing is happening in places like Ireland and New York," he added.
"It's inevitable because prohibition never works and it sort of drives people to want to flout the rules. 'Smoke-ins' will increase as we go into the winter months."
Colin Wilkinson, the secretary of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, which last week revealed alcohol sales had fallen by 11 per cent during the first five months of the ban, said it could not condone licensees taking the law into their own hands.
He said: "We haven't heard of this going on, but we would want to make it absolutely clear that anyone doing this sort of thing would be breaking the law, and it should not be happening."
A spokeswoman for Edinburgh City Council said: "Smoking enforcement officers have not come across any so-called 'smoke-easies' in the course of their inspections, nor have they been informed of any taking place in city pubs, nightclubs or other public enclosed places covered by the smoking ban legislation.
"As well as the routine visits to premises to monitor levels of compliance with the smoking ban, officers can and do visit premises at any time of day or night," said the spokeswoman.
Since the ban came into place, the city council's environmental health officers have visited 5,851 premises and issued 66 warning letters and two fixed penalty notices.
A Scottish Executive spokesman said: "Licensed premises are covered by the smoking ban legislation whatever hour of day it is, during opening hours or afterwards. It makes no difference - unless smoking takes place on domestic property attached to the pub."