Anti-smoking measure clears Howard council Lawmakers override Ecker's veto for one of toughest laws on East Coast

September 21, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The Howard County Council overrode the executive's veto last night and banned smoking nearly everywhere beginning in mid-1996, giving the county one of the toughest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast.

The bill toughens smoking restrictions in 60 days, but delays the total ban until July 1, 1996. After that date, the only smoking allowed in public will be in overnight truck stops, retail tobacco stores and in self-enclosed, separately ventilated bar areas of restaurants.

"It's been a long struggle," said 3rd District Democrat C. Vernon Gray, the bill's chief architect. "We've addressed 90 percent of the concerns [raised in hearings and in the executive's veto letter]. We've sent a message to the state . . . and to the East Coast that death from side-stream smoke is preventable."

Eric Gally, spokesman for the Maryland division of the American Cancer Society, agreed.

"The Howard County Council has really fulfilled its responsibility to protect the public interest and override a very unfortunate veto," he said. "They have done a great job under a lot of pressure with great courage and we really love them for it. They have taken a great stride in a public health interest and in a public economic interest."

Ellicott City resident Peg Browning, who testified for the bill, said she wished "it would become law tomorrow. Sometimes we need to enforce laws for people's own good."

Ms. Browning, who has had cancer of the lung and cancer of the larynx, must carry a portable oxygen container wherever she goes.

"I used to light 'em up and leave 'em," she said. "I know the effects of second-hand smoke."

Until last month, Howard County had been the East Coast leader in enacting smoking bans, having already banned smoking in enclosed malls and severely restricted smoking in restaurants and the work place. After Howard County enacted landmark legislation prohibiting smoking in enclosed malls, Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties followed suit.

Last month, Talbot County enacted without fanfare a bill similar to one Howard passed last night. The Talbot bill prohibits smoking in indoor restaurants, stores, offices, workplaces, theaters, buses, taxis and restrooms. The Talbot bill is set to take effect early next month, and may be petitioned to referendum.

Tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who earlier called Howard council members supporting the no-smoking bill "extremists," said he will sue the county for overstepping its bounds.

"Howard County has no authority to act in this area," he said. "The state legislature considered banning smoking in restaurants," but chose to make such decisions voluntary. As a result, the bill is "legally deficient," Mr. Bereano said.

He successfully used a similar argument before the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court ruled Friday that local laws in Bowie and Takoma Park banning cigarette vending machines from places accessible to children were unconstitutional.

Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican and the only council member supporting the veto, said he also is worried the bill may be illegal. "I don't know if we are allowed to vote on a person's private business."

Although he supported the county's other anti-smoking legislation, including a bill outlawing smoking in enclosed malls, "it was more semi-public," Mr. Feaga said. "These restaurants and bars are private, private, private. We're sending a message to small businesses that we really don't need them."

Council Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, and Councilman Paul R. Farragut, a 4th District Democrat, said they have been persuaded by recent studies that second-hand smoke is extremely dangerous.

Government must be careful when regulating private business, said 2nd District Republican Darrel Drown. "[But tonight], public health is the overriding concern," he said.

The County Council delayed the restaurant ban until 1996 to allow time for the General Assembly to enact a statewide ban -- something Mr. Bereano says will never happen.

In addition to a legal challenge, opponents may consider a petition drive, Mr. Bereano said. A successful petition -- 5,000 valid signatures within 90 days -- would put the bill on hold until the next election when voters would decide the issue.

'Unfair competition'

County Executive Charles I. Ecker was philosophic about the vote.

"They had to do what they had to do," he said. "But it sets up unfair competition" between restaurants that can afford to provide a separate ventilating system for an enclosed bar area and those that can't.

"It's a shame when government puts one business ahead of another. I am concerned about the health of those people who will be working in the enclosed bar areas. There should have been no exemptions."

Ms. Pendergrass said she found the executive's comments confusing.

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