Ecker threatens to veto anti-smoking bill County executive wants total ban in public places

September 07, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County Council plans to do a little more tinkering with its anti-smoking bill tonight, but not enough, apparently, to avoid a veto.

If amended as expected, the bill would still provide a small exception to an otherwise total ban on smoking in public places beginning July 1, 1996.

Smoking would be permitted in a sealed-off portion of a restaurant if that area had a separate ventilating system.

"If they move all the exceptions, I'll sign it," County Executive Charles I. Ecker said Friday. "If the partition [clause] is there, I'll veto it."

It takes four votes to override a veto. The council is expected to pass the bill tonight by a 4-1 vote, but the vote is by no means veto-proof. The council voted 4-1 for a nearly identical bill June 7, but that support evaporated in the face of Mr. Ecker's subsequent veto.

Mr. Ecker vetoed the earlier bill because it exempted bars and taverns from the smoking ban and because it contained a so-called smokers' rights clause.

The smokers' rights clause was deleted from the rewrite, but the bar and tavern exemption remain. The bill defines bars and taverns as establishments that earn more than 50 percent of their income from alcohol sales.

After restaurant owners complained that most county bars and taverns function like restaurants, council members Darrel Drown, and Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, sought to come up with a narrower definition. They wanted to craft an exemption for the five or six county bars and taverns that serve only minimal amounts of food.

That apparently became an impossible task.

Mr. Drown said he will instead offer an amendment tonight that would eliminate the bar and tavern exemption and go along with the provision for sealed-off smoking areas first proposed by Mr. Farragut.

Keeping the bar exemption and basing it on alcohol consumption sends a bad signal, Mr. Drown said.

"The bill had its genesis as a health issue," he said. "I'm a Republican who hates to impart his views on other people, but I am also an elected official who has to look out for the public's health. . . . The key from my perspective is that this definitely needs to be done on a statewide basis."

Mr. Ecker also favors a statewide ban. When the council first considered the bill, he asked that it not take effect until a ban was imposed statewide. But if a local ban was imposed first, it should apply to everyone, Mr. Ecker said. "If it's a health issue, there should not be any exemptions."

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief architect of the bill, said he would support an amendment to remove the bar exemption.

"I am hopeful the bill will be approved [tonight] by the council and that we will take another step forward in protecting the health of our citizens," Mr. Gray said. "It would make us one of the leading counties on the eastern seaboard."

Some provisions of the bill would take effect as soon as the bill became law. Sixty days after passage or the overriding of a veto, restaurants would have to reduce the amount of seating for smokers, employers would have to increase the amount of smoke-free work space, and owners of private residences would have to refrain from smoking if their homes were used for day care.

Although local restaurateurs said the no-smoking bill would force many of them out of business, Mr. Gray believes otherwise.

"I am certain the restaurants will survive," he said.

The rationale for waiting three years to impose a total smoking ban is to give the Maryland General Assembly time to enact a smoking prohibition statewide.

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