The Royal College of Physicians and 17 other medical colleges have called for a ban on smoking in public places.
Doctors say passive smoking kills 1,000 adults a year
In a letter to The Times, they warned there was now compelling evidence about the dangers of passive smoking.
They argued the system of voluntary self-regulation in bars and restaurants had failed, and called for legislation.
However, Health Minister Melanie Johnson backed the current system and said the government had no plans to introduce a ban.
The letter reflects international concern about the harmful effects of passive smoking, which doctors say kills 1,000 adults a year.
Ireland and Norway are on course to ban smoking in public places in the New Year.
Doctors' leaders says Britain's voluntary route, where bars and restaurants are encouraged to introduce no-smoking policies, is simply not enough.
They argue that passive smoking not only causes 1,000 deaths in adults each year, but is also responsible for asthma, lung infections and ear problems in children.
Professor Carol Black of the Royal College of Physicians told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that evidence from the World Health Organisation, the UK Committee on Carcinogenicity and the government's own Committee on Science and Health all showed the need to introduce a public smoking ban.
"In 1998, the government said there was no doubt smoking kills and suggested progress could be achieved by working with [the
tobacco] industry rather than to enforce a public ban. That progress has not been fast," she said.
Professor Black said only 36 pubs in the country had enforced their own smoking bans.
She added voluntary bans had not worked well, but an enforced public smoking ban could save about 160,000 lives per year.
Health Minister Melanie Johnson agreed the rate of progress over voluntary bans had not been good, but denied there was a
need for a public ban.
"Smoke-free places are the ideal, but the evidence is that public opinion remains divided," she said.
"There is also cost and a difficulty involved in enforcing a no smoking ban."
She added there was a lot of room for the hospitality industry to enforce their own smoking bans, adding they had so far been slow to respond to demand."
Meanwhile, the Mayor of London is consulting on what Londoners think about where people should be able to smoke, and other cities such as Sheffield, Birmingham and Brighton are considering bringing in more restrictions.
In the summer, restaurant chain Pizza Hut claimed to be the UK's first nationwide restaurant chain to introduce a total smoking ban.
Deborah Arnott, director of the anti-smoking charity ASH, said: "Legislation to end employees' involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke at work is long overdue.
"Children also need protection when they are taken out to restaurants and other public places where smoking is still permitted.
"If the government has rejected calls for a new law, then it must spell out what exactly it does intend to do about the problem.
"To rely on 'voluntary action' without clear timetable targets and government support would be to fail those whose health is threatened by secondhand smoke and to abandon a vital weapon in the armoury of tobacco control."
A spokesman for the British Lung Foundation said: "More than 8 million people have a lung condition in the UK and all of them are severely aggravated by exposure to second hand smoke.
"People should have the right to be able to work without being exposed to
dangers to their health."