Last night Howard restaurateurs said they cannot survive a total ban on smoking in the county, even if that ban is still two years away.
The problem, they say, is one of equity. If Howard is smoke-free and other counties are not, they say smokers will take their business elsewhere.
The restaurant owners were testifying against a bill sponsored by Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, that would ban smoking in all public places except bars, beginning July 1, 1995.
"We're opposing legislation whose goals we generally support," said Marcia Harris, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "It's a very serious issue. Even a small loss in our customer base in 1995 and our businesses are going to be in serious trouble."
Pizza Hut's John Schulze agreed, saying about 25 percent of his company's customers are smokers.
"If we were to lose that 25 percent or only half of that amount, the financial impact to Pizza Hut of Maryland would be devastating," he said.
In the summer before the presidential election, Pizza Hut experienced "a dramatic decrease in sales" that he said forced the company to make personnel reductions for the first time in its history.
"There are an awful lot of smaller establishments that will tell you they have gone through this period of time and made no money," he said. "If indeed they lost [another] 20 percent, most would not survive."
It was a theme echoed by Ellicott City restaurateurs Bill King of Crab Shanty and Pat Patterson of P.J.'s Family Pub.
"I personally will not be able to withstand a 10 to 15 percent cut in business," Mr. Patterson said. "We don't need legislation. Our customers and the public will show us the way."
Mr. King said there are "too many problems" with the legislation.
"I cannot afford the risk of losing 25 percent of my business," he said.
Mr. Gray suggested that local business might increase as a result of the smoking ban. Promoting a smoke-free county could be a good marketing tool, he said.
Mr. Schulze asked for "hard evidence" to support Mr. Gray's position. If that evidence is not available, Mr. Gray "may indeed be gambling with the future of more than just one individual," Mr. Schulze said.
Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist, spoke on behalf of the Tobacco Institute.
"For Howard County to act as an island is highly unrealistic," said Mr. Bereano, adding the legislation fosters what he sees as a continuing and growing pattern of interference by employers with employees' lifestyles.
Earlier, advocates of a smoke-free county praised the Gray bill and urged the council to adopt it.
"There is no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen," said Dr. Cynthia Lipsitz, director of the county Bureau of Personal Health. "Trying to have a smoke-free section in a restaurant is like trying to have a chlorine-free section of a swimming pool."
"If all of you could save one life though a legislative act, you would do it," said Rick North of the American Cancer Society.
Mr. Gray's bill proposes changes that would take effect immediately, as well as in 1995. Between now and then, it would reduce available restaurant seating to smokers, add to the amount of employee work space that must be smoke-free and forbid employers from retaliating against nonsmokers who demand a smoke-free environment.
The council will have a work session on the bill Monday and is scheduled to vote on the legislation June 7.