The Howard County Council virtually snuffed out smoking across the county last night, enacting Maryland's toughest anti-smoking law.
When the measure takes effect in 60 days, restaurants must reduce the amount of seating available to smokers, employers must increase the amount of smoke-free work space and owners of private residences must refrain from smoking if their homes are used for day care.
In three years, the measure will ban smoking in every public place in the county except bars. Waiting that long to impose a nearly total prohibition would allow time for the Maryland General Assembly to enact a statewide ban, proponents said. The law makes illegal smoking a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $100.
Restaurateurs and County Executive Charles I. Ecker said a statewide ban was necessary to keep businesses from fleeing to nearby counties. They urged the council to wait until a statewide ban was imposed.
Bruce Bereano, a powerful Annapolis lobbyist representing the Tobacco Institute, called last night's vote "very, very unfortunate."
"Howard County is creating itself into an island," he said.
"I do not see any support for a statewide ban" in the General Assembly, Mr. Bereano said.
Smoking bans have been imposed in various ways across Maryland -- by businesses, in office buildings, in supermarkets, hospitals, state and many local government buildings, in jails, and recently at such large gathering places as the Cranberry Mall in Westminster, Towson Town Center mall and Oriole Park.
A ban enacted by the Anne Arundel County Council will take effect next month, affecting banks, classrooms, lecture halls, auditoriums, health care facilities, public meeting rooms, museums, libraries and restrooms, among other places.
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," Carey O'Connor, a legislative analyst at the Washington-based Coalition on Smoking or Health, has said previously. 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.
Earlier, Eric Gally, director of public affairs for the Maryland division of the American Cancer Society, had said that if the proposal passed, "It would put Howard County in the vanguard absolutely" statewide. 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.
The Howard bill originally allowed smoking in bars, but Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, successfully pushed an amendment mandating that bars be enclosed and have separate ventilation systems.
"It is a devastating amendment," Mr. Bereano said. "It is a roundabout way of precluding smoking now, not in 1996."
Restaurants are in a different category from other businesses in that people who smoke consider tobacco use "very much a part of the meal" that they enjoy with coffee or dessert, said Mr. Bereano, who believes smokers will abandon Howard County for restaurants elsewhere.
By passing the bill on a 4-1 vote -- making the measure "veto-proof" -- the council "took a giant step toward protecting the health of our citizens against the dangers of secondhand smoke," said its sponsor, Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.
Mr. Gray said he had been planning amendments 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 par with benzene, arsenic and radon.
The report says 3,000 nonsmokers die each year from exposure to secondhand smoke, and that it is especially hazardous to children.
"This is a health bill," he said. "This is not about offending people."
Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, the only member to vote against the bill, said his fear is how the bill will affect businesses.
"You don't have to go into a man's restaurant," he said. "It is too easy to leave the county and go elsewhere [to eat out]. Tobacco is not illegal. Tobacco is legal."