Total Smoking Ban Is Puffing Our Way

COMMENT

August 01, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

My father, one of the few remaining smokers I know, has come up with what he thinks is a clever idea that will allow him to bring his bad habit back indoors where it was once OK.

Having been barred for years from smoking in his own home and in others', he's decided to create a portable bar that can be set up at a moment's notice, allowing him to smoke in any deserted room he can find.

In Howard County, this may one day be all that's needed to stay within the law and still smoke in public places. It shows not only how far the county has come in prohibiting smoking in public, but also the extreme silliness that surrounds the debate as a full ban draws nearer.

There is no question that Howard County has been in the vanguard on this issue. Having passed a bill in 1987 restricting smoking in public places to designated areas, the County Council followed with a ban on smoking in the Columbia Mall. It is now poised to extend the ban to offices and restaurants in the county.

The last impediment to a ban is a squabble over whether to allow smoking in bars and, more specifically, how to define what a bar is. There appear to be only six taverns in Howard that would meet the proposed definition.

This is the final battleground. It's as if a cadre of die-hards, my father included, have realized their own defeat but want some small bone thrown their way if for no other reason than to save face.

For the council, the process of defining a bar has become so tortured that the public may wonder whether food itself somehow enhances the carcinogen effect of tobacco.

"Our purpose is to ban smoking wherever food is prepared or eaten," said Republican Councilman Darrel Drown, who offered an amendment that would ban smoking at any establishment "which gives or offers food for sale for the public, guests or employees."

A bar is defined as a place where "the serving of food is only incidental . . . and the food served requires neither refrigeration nor heating and consists of commercial packaged items or finger food." We're talking about munchies -- pretzels with shot glasses and beer chasers.

What I don't understand is why a bar hop is considered such a second-class citizen that he or she doesn't deserve the same protection county officials want to bestow on restaurant goers or office workers.

I'm willing to wager that there is such a small constituency for bar smoking that the debate causing the current delay in voting for a total ban isn't worth the effort.

Even County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who had earlier sided with the business lobby against a total ban, appears to accept the inevitable. Now Mr. Ecker is threatening to veto the measure only if it favors some establishments over others by exempting them from the ban.

And he's right. Why should some establishments be given an unfair competitive advantage through an exemption? It's time to bite the bullet. The Virginia Slims' slogan, "You've come a long way, baby," was prophetic in ways that the cigarette manufacturer never intended just two decades ago. The public mood against smoking has mushroomed with every warning that has been issued by the federal government.

Cigarette ads have been pulled from television, smoking is no longer glamorized in movies and personal tolerance of smokers has eroded rapidly. The other day, while watching a re-run of the old "Dick Van Dyke Show," I was dumbfounded to see Robert Petrie taking drags on a cigarette. The same show today would never allow its star to indulge in the dirty habit.

Long before elected officials realized the need for laws against smoking in public, people were banning smoking in their own homes. At a Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, a friend announced to her family that smoking would be banned inside. There was considerable grumbling, but, two years later, the ban remains in effect and no questions are asked. Years ago, my mother also told my father to take his smoking outside no matter what the weather. His portable bar proposal is unlikely to sway her.

Last January, the public mood sharpened with the release of a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that confirmed the dangers of secondhand smoke. And last month, another EPA report suggested guidelines for controlling smoking public places, stressing the effects of secondhand smoke on small children, particularly with respiratory problems such as asthma. EPA administrator Carol M. Browner testified before a House subcommittee that secondhand smoke causes some 3,000 deaths a year from lung cancer and 150,000 to 300,000 respiratory infections in infants. And a new study reported last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that restaurant and bar employees have a substantially greater risk of cancer due to the typically high levels of tobacco smoke in eating and drinking establishments.

With the case against smoking more compelling than ever, arguing over what defines a bar seems absurd in the extreme.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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