Howard County could soon have the toughest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast.
Councilman C. Vernon Gray wants to ban smoking in all workplaces and two of the four other County Council members say they would support such a plan.
County law already bans smoking in work spaces shared by smokers and nonsmokers, but allows designating enclosed areas for smoking. Mr. Gray, the architect of the county's tough anti-smoking laws, says that's not enough protection for nonsmokers.
"One of the chief functions of government is to provide for the health and safety of its citizens," Mr. Gray said. "My bill would exercise that role by protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke, which has been proven to cause cancer. Unfortunately, the smoking policy [allowed under the current law] has not worked as well as expected despite people's best efforts."
A constituent recently called to say that when she complained about secondhand smoke at work, she was told to keep quiet or risk losing her job, Mr. Gray said. "We can't have that. We've got to deal with that," he said.
Mr. Gray said he had been planning amendments to the smoking law for some time. But a Jan. 7 Environmental Protection Agency report persuaded him not to delay any longer. The EPA classified secondhand smoke as a Group A carcinogen, making it a killer on a par with benzene, arsenic and radon.
The report says 3,000 nonsmokers die each year from exposure to secondhand smoke, and that secondhand smoke is especially hazardous to children.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has banned smoking in the White House.
"As far as we know, Howard County would be the first county on the East Coast to ban [all] smoking in the workplace," said Carey O'Connor, a legislative analyst at the Washington-based Coalition on Smoking or Health. But on the West Coast, the ban would not stand out much, she said.
"California is far and away the leader in smoking-control legislation," with about 40 cities, including Oakland, banning all smoking in workplaces and restaurants, Ms. O'Connor said. "Hundreds of other places [in California] have restrictions" similar to those in Howard. Mr. Gray said he based his original smoking bill on California law.
Mr. Gray, D-3rd, also wants to prohibit smoking in restaurants that seat fewer than 75 people. Restaurants that seat more are required to provide a separate area for smokers, but restaurants that seat fewer than 75 are allowed to seat smokers and nonsmokers in the same room.
The proposal also would forbid smoking anywhere in a house house used as a day care center.
Current law forbids smoking in the portions of a house used for day care, but allows smoking elsewhere.
If Mr. Gray's proposal passes, "it would put Howard County in the vanguard absolutely," said Eric Gally, director of communications and public affairs for the Maryland division of the American Cancer Society.
What would set Howard apart, he said, is a threefold thrust: no smoking in malls, workplaces and restaurants. No other city or county in Maryland has all three bans, he said.
Councilmen Darrel Drown, R-2nd, and Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, said they support the plan in principle. They said the EPA report helped convince them that the law needs revising.
Neither needed much of a push: Both joined Mr. Gray last April in casting the deciding votes in favor of a bill to prohibit smoking at enclosed shopping malls.
"I am very sympathetic to having no-smoking laws," Mr. Feaga said. "The risk of cancer is too serious. I'd certainly consider co-sponsoring the [Gray] bill."
Said Mr. Drown, "There's going to be more [anti-smoking legislation] coming down the pike." He added that he was thinking of proposing such a measure himself. "We can set the tone or wait. We can lead or follow. I prefer to be the leader."
Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, and Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, opposed the mall smoking ban last April, say it was an attempt to micro-manage people's lives and regulate private property. Both expressed reservations about the latest proposal.
"It will be interesting to hear the public response," Ms. Pendergrass said.
Said Mr. Farragut, "It's certainly a popular notion. I want to hear from the people -- the clean-air advocates and the restaurant owners. I want to know to what extent it becomes a problem [for restaurant owners]. It's such an emotional issue. I want to hear both sides."
Howard County became one of the first jurisdictions in the state to require restaurants and office buildings to set aside separate smoking areas when the council passed Mr. Gray's first anti-smoking bill in 1988. He said his current proposal should be ready for council action in a couple of months.
The place where Howard County has been "fairly innovative," said Ms. O'Connor of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, was its enactment last April of the Gray-sponsored law to ban smoking JTC in enclosed malls. The county's mall law has become a model for other communities, she said.