State called unlikely to copy smoking ban Howard law irks restaurateurs

June 09, 1993|By James M. Coram and John W. Frece | James M. Coram and John W. Frece,Staff Writers

A key state legislator said yesterday he doesn't think Howard County's tough new anti-smoking plans will spark a similar state law.

And that prospect, many county restaurateurs feel, will leave them at a competitive disadvantage if smoking patrons go elsewhere to enjoy their food and tobacco, too.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, does not see a ban happening soon.

"I don't see the groundswell for doing that," he said. "I just think the tobacco industry is still not a dead industry. The punch that it has would be sufficient to postpone that."

As for the Howard County law, "That is rather dramatic and far-reaching," he said. "I can't see us going that far and being that dramatic about it. It is almost like saying you can't smoke anywhere, no time."

The Howard law would ban smoking in all public places except bars as of July 1, 1996. In the meantime, the new law -- the toughest anti-smoking measure in the state -- would reduce the amount of restaurant seating available to smokers, increase the amount of smoke-free work space shared by employees, and require owners of private residences to refrain from smoking if their homes are used for day care.

The House Environmental Matters Committee -- the counterpart of Senator Blount's committee -- will have a public hearing on a statewide smoking proposal Sept. 7.

Robin F. Shaivitz, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, believes the chance to pass a statewide ban "is better than it ever has been."

She noted that the Maryland Restaurant Association has said it could support a statewide ban, a position the association took to eliminate the disparities that occur when neighboring jurisdictions have different laws on smoking. Ms. Shaivitz admits, however, that it is politically difficult to pass anti-smoking legislation. She recalled how last session the tobacco industry helped defeat a bill to increase fines for those who sell cigarettes to minors.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-Howard, who pioneered Howard County's anti-smoking laws in the late 1970s and has worked in Annapolis to enact similar legislation on the state level, said yesterday she hopes to make that less difficult.

She said she has arranged a meeting with retailers, representatives of the Maryland Restaurant Association, and tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano later this month.

With the exception of Mr. Bereano, who has lobbied successfully against total bans in the past, Ms. Thomas feels confident she will win support from restaurant owners.

"The issue is pretty clear in terms of health," she said. "I don't know if it's politically possible" to get the legislature to pass a comprehensive no-smoking bill in the next session, she said.

The difference now, Ms. Thomas said, is that many restaurant owners and retailers "are real worried about lawsuits from employees exposed to secondhand smoke."

"I don't think we're ever going to get a statewide ban," said Pat Patterson, owner of P. J.'s restaurant in Ellicott City.

Other Ellicott City restaurant owners fear that Mr. Patterson may be right. If he is, their smoking customers will drive down the road to Baltimore County where the smoking laws are more liberal, they say.

Two smokers at Side Streets Restaurant agreed. "We're absolutely not going into a place where we're not wanted," said Kim Hightower.

"The government should not be in charge," said Sandi Doyle. "They should let the owners decide."

Mr. Patterson couldn't agree more: "I don't like government intervention. . . . I would probably be 100 percent smoke-free in three years anyway. If left alone, we could have handled this ourselves."

"I think [the ban] is inevitable," said John Mancuso, operating partner of Piccolo's Restaurant in Columbia. "But it's not going to help business. Twenty percent of my customers are smokers, and I'm going to lose some of them. We're only a mile from Laurel," in Prince George's County, he said.

Like many restaurant owners, Mr. Mancuso found it odd that the council did not include taverns in its smoking prohibition. "If smoking is a health issue, why weren't taverns included in the ban, too?" owners asked. Taverns are defined in the bill as establishments earning less than 50 percent of their income from food.

"They're going to be serving more food," Mr. Mancuso predicted. If they do, however, that could push them over the 50 percent limit and they would become restaurants subject to a total ban.

"It's going to hurt me no matter what," said John K. Lea, owner of J. K.'s Pub in Columbia's Village of Wilde Lake. Although Mr. Lea has a tavern license, his establishment earns nearly 50 percent of its income from food already, he said.

Mr. Lea would also be affected by an amendment to the bill which says a bar must be enclosed and have a separate ventilating system.

The new law "is a real kick in the pants," he said. "It's going to force me to make some decisions I really don't want to make."

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