Assembly rooms still smoke-filled

March 21, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Attention smokers: Tired of the no-smoking rules in state office buildings and courthouses? Not to worry -- there is one branch of government that won't treat you like an outcast.

In this era of anti-smoking sentiment, the Maryland General Assembly remains a refuge for tobacco lovers, even while it considers anti-tobacco legislation.

Legislative leaders allow people to puff to their hearts' content in many areas of their stately complex in Annapolis, including some committee rooms where citizens testify.

"It's sort of ironic," said Nelson J. Sabatini, the governor's health secretary and an ex-smoker.

It's also sort of smoky.

Take the basement of the State House, part of which the legislature controls. The air is sometimes thick with the nicotine exhalations of lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters. Even top aides to Gov. William Donald Schaefer have been known to take a puff there, because their boss won't let them feed their habits in their second-floor offices.

The governor banned smoking in offices under executive control in 1992, and the state's top judge did the same for courts.

So why hasn't the legislature followed their example?

"Usually the judges and the executive are wrong," joked Del. Paul E. Weisengoff, a cigar-smoking Democrat from Baltimore.

Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a leader in the fight against second-hand smoke, finds the whole issue a bit embarrassing.

"We don't set a very good example. We're leaders on a lot of health care issues, but we're an embarrassment when it comes to being role models," the Howard County Democrat said.

"People come down here to testify, and they shouldn't have to go through a hazardous environment," she said.

The smoke is so thick in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee that one member, Del. Leon G. Billings, said he avoids some meetings altogether.

"I'm allergic to the smoke. I've asked them not to smoke, but they're still smoking. The worse part is now they smoke during the hearings. It's a constant pall," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

A fellow Montgomery delegate, Carol S. Petzold, also has suffered first-hand from second-hand smoke in Annapolis.

She had to leave a voting session in the House Judiciary Committee several weeks ago after second-hand smoke made her sick, she said.

Delegate Petzold, a Democrat, grew up breathing her parents' tobacco smoke and later developed allergies and asthma symptoms.

Since the episode in Judiciary, committee members have sought to accommodate her. The smokers stopped lighting up in the committee room, although one backslider was spied puffing away in a Thursday night voting session.

The committee also sought last week to accommodate another nonsmoker -- Bruce C. Bereano, the Tobacco Institute's lobbyist.

The chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., allowed Mr. Bereano to testify on tobacco bills even though he missed the March 11 hearing. Mr. Bereano was attending an out-of-town Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament with his son that day. He spoke to the committee three days later.

Mr. Vallario, a Prince George's Democrat, said it's not unusual for him to accept late testimony, but the governor's top lobbyist, Bonnie A. Kirkland, called it "irregular."

Regardless, at least one thing seems certain -- even the legislature is starting to adapt to changing attitudes about smoking.

Although their leaders have been been slow to impose strict rules, some lawmakers who smoke say they have begun restricting themselves. Delegate Weisengoff and several fellow smokers no longer make the House Ways and Means Committee a fairly pungent place.

"We agreed not to smoke in the committee because some of the delegates don't like it," he said. "We did that by choice."

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