Thomas ready to push public smoking ban

June 25, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County Del. Virginia M. Thomas emerged from a 90-minute meeting with 19 business leaders and health professionals yesterday saying she is optimistic that the next Maryland General Assembly will enact a statewide ban on smoking in public places.

"The business community is increasingly concerned about secondary smoke as an employee health issue," the Columbia Democrat said. "They want uniformity in public places statewide."

Business leaders also worry that a nonsmoking employee exposed to secondhand smoke may come down with lung cancer and sue the employer, she said. "That's one of their reasons for supporting a statewide ban."

Ms. Thomas set up the meeting in Columbia yesterday to develop a consensus about how to deal with statewide smoking legislation.

She originally had invited tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano to attend the session but some anti-smoking groups refused to sit at the same table, she said.

Ms. Thomas said she will meet with Mr. Bereano later, but she doubts that a compromise can be worked out over nonsmoking legislation.

One of the major issues yesterday was whether to develop an omnibus smoking bill or deal with various concerns separately. Ms. Thomas said her preference is to deal with each issue separately.

The problem with an omnibus bill, Ms. Thomas said, is that it would have to go through too many committees and would be opposed by too many lobbies.

Ms. Thomas wants to start with a bill that would ban smoking in public places.

"We're [still] trying to figure out how to deal with smoking in the private work-place area," she said.

The public smoking ban would "fill in the gaps in the current law," she said, and apply to small retailers as well as large ones.

The bill would also apply to restaurants without exemption.

One of the reasons County Executive Charles I. Ecker gave for vetoing a Howard County no-smoking bill on June 18 was that it exempted bars and taverns from the ban.

Proponents of the bar and tavern exemption said that, since children and adults with respiratory problems would be unlikely to eat in such places, there was less need for a smoking ban there.

Ms. Thomas disagrees. She says there is very little difference between a restaurant that has a tavern license and sells food, and one that has a restaurant license and sells alcohol. "We're talking about places where minors eat dinner," she said. She said her state bill would not have an exemption.

One of the problems for state legislators, Ms. Thomas said, is whether to pre-empt counties -- "if we make it statewide and don't allow counties to do anything. If it's a good piece of legislation, there would be no need for the counties to add to it."

bTC Ms. Thomas said she will develop a draft bill following her meeting with Mr. Bereano. Among the other concerns expressed at her meeting yesterday were the profitability of tobacco farming and the selling of cigarettes to minors, Ms. Thomas said.

One way to reduce tobacco farming within the state would be to offer incentives to farmers who switched to another crop, Ms. Thomas said.

As for minors, any law that includes fines for people who sell cigarettes to minors should also include fines on the minors who buy them, Ms. Thomas said.

"Frankly, one of the biggest problems [with any smoking law] is enforcement -- who and at what level," Ms. Thomas said. "That needs to be thought out."

The groups represented at yesterday's meeting were the American Association of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, the Howard County Health Department, the Maryland Association of County Health Officials, the Maryland Farm Bureau, the Maryland Parents and Teachers Association, the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, the Maryland State Medical Society, and the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

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