Having pushed through one of the nation's toughest anti-smoking prohibitions four years ago, Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray now wants to ban lighting up in all enclosed malls. The weight of public opinion and common sense is on his side.
Plenty of people believe -- and evidence shows -- that second-hand smoke poses serious health consequences and support banning the activity outright in public places. An Associated Press poll released last month found that 70 percent of people who had never smoked support this view. Among former smokers the number was 59 percent.
But the central question has less to do with whether smoking is harmful -- most reasonable people agree it is -- than how it should be dealt with as a matter of public policy. Smoking may be a health risk, but it is an addictive habit for many.
A total prohibition on smoking might be impractical. How would such a ban be enforced? Given no smoking areas, wouldn't some tobacco addicts light up anyway? Would police or security guards have to stroll the mall in search of errant puffers? Yet the prospect of no ban at all is equally repulsive, allowing, as it would, smokers to subject others to the noxious trappings of their addiction.
The answer, it seems to us, is the relatively simple solution restaurateurs hit upon years ago -- segregating those who choose to light up. The Rouse Co., owner of Columbia Mall, is floating an amendment that would do precisely this by restricting smoking to tightly controlled, designated areas within a shopping center.
At Columbia Mall, where smoking is now restricted to first-floor areas near the food court, this amendment would move the activity to a more obscure area on the second floor. That is only logical. Allowing smoking anywhere near eating areas favors the smoker's custom of lighting up after a meal over the non-smoker's displeasure at having to suffer wafting fumes while eating.
lTC We favor a modified version of Mr. Gray's bill that provides for well-ventilated smoking areas away from eating pavilions and stores. Public sentiment has shifted in recent years and is now hurtling toward outright prohibition of smoking in public places. But that day has yet to arrive. Until it does, there must be sensible, workable compromises that balance the rights of those who choose to smoke and those who don't.