Howard smoking ban hits snag Vote to override veto falls short

June 22, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County will have to wait a little longer to discover whether it will have the toughest anti-smoking law in the state.

An attempt to override County Executive Charles I. Ecker's veto of a bill banning smoking in all public places except bars and taverns on July 1, 1996, failed last night because Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, one of the four County Council members supporting the law was sick and unable to attend a special legislative session to reconsider it. It takes four votes to override an executive's veto.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief architect of the vetoed bill, said he plans to introduce a nearly identical bill at the council's legislative session July 6, but without a controversial smokers' rights clause.

The smokers' rights amendment, tacked on to the bill just before its passage June 7, says that "no person or employer shall discharge or refuse to hire any employee or applicant for employment because such employee or applicant engages in the use of tobacco products off the work premises during non-working hours."

Mr. Ecker objected to the amendment in a two-page veto message sent to the council Friday, saying he did not want to put the police department in the position of trying to determine whether a person was fired or not hired because the person smokes during nonworking hours.

Various anti-smoking groups complained that the amendment -- which the council originally passed unanimously upon recommendation of tobacco lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano -- elevated smokers to a protected class of employees.

Yesterday, for example, the Maryland Division of the American Cancer Society sent the council a memorandum urging it to "reject any measure that includes smokers' right projection."

Cancer society spokesman Eric Gally said the clause could adversely affect small businesses that refuse to hire smokers because "smokers run up the cost of health insurance premiums."

Unless the clause were removed, small businesses might not be able to afford an employee health insurance plan, Mr. Gally said, thus leaving nonsmokers "without even the most basic medical insurance coverage."

Others said the clause could lead to lawsuits from smokers who could claim their firing or unemployment was based on the fact that they smoke. Clearly, the smokers' rights clause was the part of the bill council members had most trouble swallowing.

"The intent of this bill was not to prevent smoking," Mr. Gray said, "but to protect people from the dangerous effect of secondhand smoke -- to protect the health of the nonsmoker."

Mr. Ecker told members of the council he would support the bill if the smokers' rights amendment and the exemption for bars and taverns were removed.

Mr. Ecker said the exemption sets up unfair competition since most of the county's bars and taverns also serve food, and in his opinion, function as restaurants.

The exemption means that one-third of the county restaurants are not covered by the ban, Mr. Ecker said.

Mr. Gray was unmoved by Mr. Ecker's argument.

Since the bill defines a tavern as an establishment that earns less than 50 percent of its income from the sale of food, any tavern or bar that earns more from food than from alcohol will become a restaurant and will be subject to the smoking ban, Mr. Gray said.

The council plans to hold a public hearing on Mr. Gray's bill on July 19.

A vote on the measure is scheduled on July 26.

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