Taboo in tobacco land

January 26, 1993

From colonial times until well after World War I, tobacco growing was a mainstay of the Maryland economy. Tobacco shipment to domestic and foreign customers was a primary activity of London Town, an early port in southern Anne Arundel County.

In recent years, however, tobacco farming has lost its former importance, even in Southern Maryland. When the annual tobacco auction opened in Upper Marlboro last March, prices were so low one farmer lamented, "This is not a recession. This is a depression." Pretty soon, only names such as Port Tobacco may be left to carry on the legacy.

Changing economics and urbanization killed Maryland's once-thriving tobacco trade well before America began exhibiting its current hostility toward the pungent weed.

Even in Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg -- where actors and actresses breath life into an historic era of which tobacco was an essential part -- smoking has been banned. The Baltimore Orioles recently outlawed smoking in their new open-air stadium.

The list goes on. A tobacco smoker is increasingly becoming a pariah in today's America.

Anne Arundel County is now joining this move. Under a directive from County Executive Robert R. Neall, smoking will be banned in 221 facilities and buildings owned or leased by the county.

"Smoking clearly poses a significant risk to the health of smokers and others who are exposed to tobacco smoke," the executive said. "It is increasingly apparent that we must provide our employees a smoke-free environment."

It is not often that local governments intervene in their employees' or taxpayers private behavior and lifestyle, nor is it always desirable. Smoking is an exception, prompted by strong evidence that the health hazards linked to smoking make such an intervention necessary.

The smoking ban will surely inconvenience some people, but there is a compelling public interest in protecting the health of non-smokers.

Smoking is a major cause of cancer, and new studies are underscoring the hazards of second-hand smoke. It is estimated that more than 700 Anne Arundel residents die of cancer each year. That makes the county's cancer death rate significantly higher than most of Maryland, which has the worst incidence of cancer in the nation. The county ban sends yet another message about this dangerous link.

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