A seemingly straight-forward comment from Tory candidate for Mayor of London Boris Johnson about the smoking ban has started a row about donations to his campaign.

In an online question and answer session for The Sun newspaper yesterday, he was asked: “are you still against the smoking ban in pubs and clubs? If so, what, if anything, do you propose to do about it?”

Mr Johnson replied: “What is the point of having local democracy if we don’t leave decisions like this to a local level?

“If I had my way, we would have an online referendum in London about whether to give boroughs back the power to give discretion over smoking to pubs and clubs.”

Mr Johnson later issued a clarification, saying that he was expressing his personal view.

“Personally I do not like smoking and believe that pubs and clubs are better places since the ban came in.

“My point was that I believe laws like the smoking ban should have been decided at a local level rather than a national level. It is not within the power of the Mayor to have a referendum, nor will I be lobbying for the power to grant one.”

Labour candidate Ken Livingstone, who is seeking a third term in office, said that Mr Johnson has declared he accepted a payment of £5,000 to £10,000 from the Tobacco Association in June 2007, and no politician should be prepared to accept a donation from that industry.

“The smoking ban is one of the biggest contributions to health we have seen in recent years,” he said.

“Boris Johnson’s position wishing boroughs had the power to overturn the smoking ban shows how hopelessly out of touch he is and unsuitable to the Mayor of a modern, forward looking city like London.

“It is made worse by the fact that it follows a donation from the tobacco lobby.

“London wants a Mayor who understands the importance of the ban on smoking in public places and supports it, not one who in reality opposes it and supports ways of getting round it. Boris Johnson is putting the health of Londoners at risk.”

The Livingstone campaign highlighted a Daily Telegraph column written by Mr Johnson in June 2005.

“It is extremely difficult, statistically, to contract a cancer from passive smoking,” he wrote.

“Far more difficult than contracting HIV, and no one is going to ban HIV sufferers from having sex.”

Liberal Democrat Mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick accused his Tory opponent of being either out of touch with the voters or “in the pocket” of the tobacco industry.

“First of all Boris Johnson says that he will overturn the smoking ban,” he said.

“How can Londoners trust someone who has received money from the tobacco industry to be objective about the smoking ban? Most Londoners agree with this initiative.

“Then he issues a press release denying that he ever meant what he said. As with his comments on whether or not he snorted cocaine, Johnson continues to drop himself in it and his team have to follow him with a bucket and shovel.”

The Mayoral race has been enlivened by personal attacks in recent days, as election day on May 1st approaches.

Yesterday Mr Paddick branded Mr Livingstone a “nasty little man.”

“Do you want somebody who is a really nasty little man in the shape of Ken Livingstone, very unpleasant and rather nasty, or somebody who just appears to be somewhat eccentric but otherwise really harmless as an individual, except I wouldn’t trust him to run anything for me?” he told the Evening Standard.

In his campaign literature he brands Boris Johnson a “clown.”

Speaking to a group of gay supporters last night, Mr Livingstone accused Mr Johnson of “pandering to xenophobia” during his time as a Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph but did not personally attack the Lib Dem candidate.

“I will not try to discourage anyone from voting for Brian Paddick,” he said.

“I think a lot of people would say I want to register the fact that a gay man can get hundreds of thousands of people voting for him. But this is not like other elections. There is no such thing as a wasted vote. You get two votes.

“You can register a vote for whatever candidate you want. You then get a second vote, which is to choose between the frontrunners.”

Londoners will go to the polls to elect a Mayor and the 25-member London Assembly on May 1st.

Full list of candidates for Mayor of London:

Richard Barnbrook

British National Party

Gerard Batten

UK Independence Party

Sian Berry

Green Party

Alan Craig

Christian Peoples Alliance and Christian Party

Lindsey German

The Left List

Boris Johnson

Conservative Party

Ken Livingstone

Labour Party

Winston McKenzie

Independent

Matt O’Connor

English Democrats

Brian Paddick

Liberal Democrats

Stonewall will be holding a hustings event on Saturday 19th April attended by Ms German, Tory candidate Boris Johnson, Lib Dem Brian Paddick and incumbent Mayor and Labour candidate Ken Livingstone. The event is fully booked.