After listening to an hour of virulent anti-smoking testimony Mondaynight, Rouse spokesman James D. Lano almost seemed ready to cry "uncle."
Would the County Council be willing to accept a compromise ona proposal by C. Vernon Gray, D-6th, to ban smoking in enclosed shopping malls, he asked.
Lano, assistant general counsel at the Rouse Co., suggested that smoking areas on the first floor of The Mall in Columbia near eating pavilions be eliminated and that smoking be allowed in special areas on the second floor only.
Council members were noncommittal. But there were signs of a nibble from councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and a hint of support from council Chairman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th. Farragut came close to saying Gray's no-smoking proposal was unwarranted and unnecessary.
Smoking at the Columbia mall is allowed now in special areas only -- the restriction having come about by passage of Gray's earlier no-smoking bill. When it was passed in 1988, theGray bill was one of the most stringent in the nation. His newest bill would ban smoking altogether in county shopping malls.
Althoughthe bill would also cover Chatham and Eastgate malls, Lano was the only person to testify against the bill. Chatham Mall already bans smoking.
Dr. Katherine Farrell of the county health board said putting limits on smoking is helpful in getting people to break their habit. Farragut asked whether Gray's bill wasn't a bit overzealous.
Farragut said he was in the mall for an hour last week and saw one smoker. He talked about the mall's high ceilings and good ventilation. He asked for there was any scientific evidence of problems with secondary smoke.
"There are two ways of looking at this," Farrell said. "Is it causing illness to people passing by?" Some people are affected by mere whiffs of smoke, she said. Secondary smoke can trigger an attack in asthmatics as much as 24 hours later, said Farrell's husband, Bernard, pulmonary medicine chief at Howard County General Hospital.
"We need to demonstrate a commitment to eliminating this social evil," Farrell said in making her second point to Farragut. "This (bill) is a step in the right direction. I think it will save lives."
Lano testified that the Columbia mall and the Oakland Mills Village Center, both owned by Rouse, have complied with the current law so wellthat in the mall, there are less than five or six complaints a month. He said the low number of complaints is "dramatic" given the estimated traffic of 4 million people a year.
"Total prohibition is unnecessary," he said. "The small number of complaints does not warrant such drastic action."
A total ban will aggravate the problem, Lano said, because there will always be people who will smoke no matter what the law says. The bill will be difficult to enforce, he said. "Conversation with violators is often difficult."
"You bring up the other side of the issue," Pendergrass told Lano. "Does the owner on a piece of property have rights (that the county cannot infringe on)?"
"I'll be thinking long and hard," she said. "It's a very gray area.Who should make the decision? Should it be us or you?"
Police Chief James N. Robey told the council "the law would be more enforceablefrom a police standpoint if the entire mall were no-smoking." Policeofficers "make an honest effort to enforce the current law, but in all honesty, we don't write a ticket on the first violation. We just ask people to put out their cigarettes and they do."
The other 17 people who testified Monday left no doubt as to who should set the rules.
"Smokers can be in the mall and not smoke, but non-smokers can't be in the mall and not breathe," said William E. Wright III of Ellicott City.
Farragut was "a very lucky person to find only one smoker in the mall and very lucky to have a non-sensitive nose," said Eileen F. Haggerty of Dayton. She said she is so bothered by smoke thatshe seldom visits the mall. If the council cannot pass Gray's bill, it should post a sign on the mall saying, "Warning! Carcinogenic area. Enter at your own risk," she said.
Afterward, Gray said he wouldnot accept Lano's compromise. "I personally think the mall should besmoke-free," he said. The council will vote on the bill on April 6.