Gray, Thomas disagree on anti-smoking tactics

January 23, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The two Howard County legislators most responsible for the county's anti-smoking laws are tangling over strategy.

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, wants state Del. Virginia M. Thomas, D-District 13A, to withdraw a bill that would ban smoking in public places statewide.

"The problem with her bill is that it will wipe out local legislation" enacted by the council last month, Mr. Gray said.

The local bill, sponsored by Mr. Gray and approved by the council Sept. 20, would ban smoking in nearly every public place beginning July 1, 1996. After that date, smoking would be allowed at overnight truck stops and in enclosed bar areas of restaurants that have separate ventilating systems.

Ms. Thomas, who sponsored the county's first no-smoking bill in 1976, wants to ban smoking in public places statewide.

Mr. Gray and representatives of the Maryland Association of Counties -- of which he is past president -- are telling Ms. Thomas that her bill would take precedence over county law and thus invalidate it. They fear any statewide bill would be considerably weakened before it is enacted. They are asking Ms. Thomas "with regret" to withdraw her bill.

"In a way, [the Thomas bill] is what the tobacco lobby wants because local bills would be pre-empted," Mr. Gray said. "They want smoke-free restaurants wiped off the books."

Ms. Thomas calls that argument "ridiculous."

The logic doesn't hold, she said, because the state has passed other bills that local jurisdictions have later expanded upon.

"I think they're missing the point," Ms. Thomas said.

"My role as a health legislator is to protect health statewide. In the best case, state law would go further" than local law because her bill has no exemptions or exceptions, she said. And if her bill failed, local law could continue to prevail, she said.

"I think the issue here, frankly, is that [tobacco lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano] is trying all angles to create smoke screens -- getting people sidetracked and worried about lawsuits instead of keeping focused on the real simple issue -- that Maryland should be a smoke-free state in public areas," Ms. Thomas said.

Like Mr. Gray, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and other County Council members, Ms. Thomas said she has constituents who travel to other parts of state and don't want to breathe second-hand smoke there.

"But if we just leave it up to the locals, we know darn well that there are many, many counties in state that will not be passing no-smoking legislation," Ms. Thomas said.

"I think it's time we ignored a lot of these other issues which are really just trying to sidetrack us and deal with the main issue, which is to guarantee public health and safety and make sure that people have a smoke-free environment, at least in Maryland.

"That's our responsibility and I'm not going to back down from that," Ms. Thomas said.

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