Clearing the Smoke HOWARD COUNTY

February 15, 1993

Howard County can claim to be in the vanguard in several areas, with its renowned planned communities and bike helmet requirements. But having the strongest ban against smoking on the East Coast may be a revolution county officials want to think about twice.

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray's proposal to ban smoking in all workplaces may appear to flow logically from a recent report linking cancer to exposure to second-hand smoke. But many questions remain to be answered about this legislation.

To how great an extent does county government want to dictate to private enterprise what it does within its four walls? And what about enforcement, which could be nearly impossible under the proposed law?

In the past, we have favored measures that restricted smoking to designated areas in public buildings and restaurants. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency's recent report concluding that second-hand smoke can cause cancer -- and about 3,000 deaths a year -- gives us all pause.

Mr. Gray's proposal, however, seems one that will garner more political points for its author than it would actual protection for non-smokers.

Mr. Gray needs to make clear what sort of role he expects county government to play should his bill win approval. If it is an activist role, one that has inspectors looking for infractions within all the county's private office buildings and retail establishments, then the legalities and costs of such an approach need to be examined carefully.

If, in fact, Mr. Gray expects the county government to move in only when someone has complained about his or her place of employment, issues of fairness come into play. Citizen policing results in spotty enforcement. And the non-smoker is still put in the uncomfortable, and sometimes personally costly, role of playing whistle-blower.

Overriding all of this may be the perception that Mr. Gray's proposal could foster within the business community. If the county develops a reputation for wanting to call too many shots within private enterprise, Howard's economic development efforts could suffer.

It appears Mr. Gray has the votes to pass a new smoking ban. In the coming weeks, however, we would like to hear more discussion of this matter.

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