Chuck Ecker's smoke screen

September 15, 1993

Howard County could finally have more potent anti-smoking legislation. Even though County Executive Charles I. Ecker has for the second time in three months vetoed smoking restrictions passed by the County Council, if the council holds fast, the executive's veto will be overturned. Second-hand smoke from RTC cigarettes -- not to mention first-hand smoke -- is unequivocally a public health threat.

Mr. Ecker, although he claims otherwise, has proven himself not very receptive to mounting evidence on the cancerous effects of cigarette smoke. He initially opposed tightening county restrictions on public smoking, preferring instead to wait and hope that the General Assembly would adopt a statewide

prohibition. Later, the executive changed his position and insisted on a county ban with no exceptions.

With both positions, Mr. Ecker has catered to the interests of restaurant and bar owners, first attempting to protect them from outside competition and then attempting to shield them from competition against each other from within Howard County.

For someone who has shown himself to be adept at walking the tightrope of politics, Mr. Ecker has stumbled badly on this issue. If the council acts with resolve, it will be the first time this executive's veto has been successfully challenged -- and it's richly deserved.

The council hasn't been without missteps of its own. Republican Darrel Drown and Democrat Paul Farragut tried to fashion an exemption for a half-dozen or so bar owners who serve only a minimal amount of food. Mr. Drown later amended that to include any bar separated from diners that has its own ventilation system. That exemption remains in the final bill.

Mr. Ecker is correct in arguing that the most meaningful anti-smoking ban would be a complete one, and that people shouldn't be protected only some of the time. Creating a narrow exemption may please some constituents, but also undercuts the moral thrust of public policy. But if it's still politically unfeasible for Howard to achieve a full ban, it can at least strengthen its existing public smoking law.

Mr. Ecker, who has shown no inclination to compromise on this issue, insists he is determined to protect the health of county residents. But his flip-flop on this matter betrays the fact that he's merely playing political games on behalf of friends in the business community.

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