Talbot takes second look at tough anti-smoking law Petitioners seek to overturn ban

August 28, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

EASTON -- Seated on a stool in a one-room beer joint called Sidetracked Saloon, Byrd Dog Wheeler waved his hands in the air as a cloud of smoke engulfed his head.

"Get it out of my face," he said sharply, causing a patron next to him to lean away, cigarette in hand.

A nonsmoker, Mr. Wheeler might be expected to champion Talbot County's tough new anti-smoking law. Designed to keep second-hand smoke out of people's faces and lungs, it bans indoor smoking in nearly all public places, including restaurants and most offices.

But Mr. Wheeler, a well-known Eastern Shore country and western musician, was among the first to sign a petition calling for county voters to overturn the law in a referendum.

"I don't want smoke blowing in my face," Mr. Wheeler said. "But I'm not going to keep someone else from smoking by taking away their freedom. It's a bad law."

The law, which the county council passed quietly on Aug. 10, is the most rigid anti-smoking ordinance in Maryland and one of the strictest on the East Coast. It is scheduled to go into effect in early October.

But despite endorsements from health care groups, a powerful local medical community and many county residents, the Talbot ordinance has come under such heavy fire recently that even its most vocal proponents concede its future is uncertain.

With support from nonsmokers like Mr. Wheeler, opposition leaders in the county's restaurant and food carryout industry predict that they will get more than the 1,667 signatures -- 10 percent of registered voters -- necessary to put the issue before the public on a referendum ballot in the November 1994 general election.

A successful petition drive would prevent the law from taking effect at least until the referendum next year. Whether the law is ever activated in its current form would depend upon the outcome of that vote.

Armed with the U.S. Surgeon General's 1986 report on the health consequences of passive smoking and the Environmental Protection Agency's 1992 conclusions about environmental tobacco smoke, Talbot County's health officer, Dr. John M. Ryan, last spring began drafting a bill to replace a law that bans smoking in government-owned buildings.

He wanted to further restrict smoking, he said, because the government studies stated what he and many other health care officials suspected all along -- that second-hand smoke is a cause of cancer in nonsmokers.

No opposition at first

Encouraged by a 1992 poll that showed a majority of Talbot County smokers and nonsmokers favored restrictions on public use of tobacco, Dr. Ryan prepared an early version of Bill No. 514 that would have required restaurants and other businesses to provide nonsmoking sections for patrons and employees.

In a memo dated March 22, Dr. Ryan told food service license holders in the county what he had proposed. He said he heard no response. When he met with Talbot County Chamber of Commerce members in St. Michaels to discuss the smoking bill, only three people showed up.

He guessed there was opposition, he said, but he figured owners of the area's 75 restaurants and carryout shops were taking their grievances directly to the county council.

But when he met with the council for work sessions on the ordinance, he was surprised to learn that in Talbot County -- once the center of the state's tobacco-growing region -- officials were prepared to take his proposal a step further.

"I had no idea they would be willing to talk about a ban," he said. "I was very gratified."

Dr. Ryan's bill was rewritten to ban smoking in most public places and formally introduced on July 13. Two small legal notices announcing a public hearing were published in the local newspaper. A handful of citizens showed up, most of them in support.

On Aug. 10, 20 working days after the bill was introduced, the five-member council passed it unanimously, with one councilman abstaining because he owns a restaurant.

Only after the bill was passed did most county business owners react with displeasure, a fact that puzzled Dr. Ryan.

"I thought they were working the good old boy network," he said later. "I didn't know they were asleep at the switch."

Some restaurant owners said that, based on Dr. Ryan's memo to them, they thought the the council was simply looking at a bill to require separate seating areas for nonsmokers. Many restaurants in Talbot County already provide no-smoking areas.

Even officials who normally monitor and support such smoking ordinances around the state were unaware of what was happening in Talbot County.

"This one caught us by surprise," said Nelson J. Sabatini, head of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "I think it's ++ great."

Anti-smoking vanguard

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