Smoking ban likely to be lifted

September 23, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's next governor is likely to change or kill the state's workplace smoking ban, one of the toughest in the country.

Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Democratic nominee Parris N. Glendening said they would withdraw the sweeping anti-smoking regulation, which is now on hold while a court considers legal challenges.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, a state delegate from Baltimore County, said she would not resurrect the ban if she is elected in November. If the state wants to restrict smoking in the workplace, she said, it should do so through the legislature.

But Mr. Glendening, the Prince George's County executive, said he would work with business and health groups to limit the ban's scope. He said he wants to hammer out a compromise that would be kinder to some small businesses and then send it through the government regulatory process again. That could take at least a year.

The regulation, one of the last major initiatives by the outgoing Schaefer administration, would ban smoking in almost all public and private indoor workplaces, including restaurants, bars and hotels.

The state adopted the rules this summer to prevent workers from being exposed to secondhand smoke, which has been linked to cancer, heart attacks and lung ailments in nonsmokers.

Tobacco companies and local businesses ran to court, claiming the ban would hurt the economy. Last month, a Talbot County judge agreed to block its implementation until the case is settled. The lawsuit is pending.

The suit has attracted nationwide attention because its outcome could influence other states that are considering using occupational safety and health rules to ban workplace smoking, as Maryland did.

But by using the regulatory process instead of the legislaturethe Schaefer administration left the ban vulnerable to gubernatorial politics. The next governor can alter or kill the regulation, according to lawyers and government officials.

Some anti-smoking activists would prefer the regulation be left alone.

"We really believe the regulation is best the way it is. We would be extremely disappointed if it was deep-sixed," said Eric Gally, public affairs director of the American Cancer Society in Maryland.

"It makes provisions for people who want to smoke, but it also makes provisions for people who don't want to be exposed to secondhand smoke and its dangerous effects. We don't want to see it diluted," he said.

The regulation allows businesses to install specially ventilated smoking lounges, but some critics say the rooms would be too costly.

An attorney and a lobbyist for the tobacco industry had no comment on the political future of the ban.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said she believes the Maryland General Assembly, rather than government regulators, should settle the issue.

"This was a perfect example of the regulatory process run amok -- of trying to legislate through regulation rather than through legislation," she said.

"I thought it was wrong and I think we should go back and do it right. And that means doing it through bill hearings, and letting the public come in and have input in the process, and the legislature deciding if that is an appropriate thing to do," she said.

But Mr. Gally said it has been hard to push anti-smoking bills through the legislature because of the tobacco lobby's influence. "We believe the tobacco industry has had tremendous influence on individual members of the General Assembly in the past," he said.

Mr. Glendening applauded the intent behind the regulation.

"Overall, I'm very supportive of reducing the hazards of secondhand smoke," he said. "However, I believe the regulation went too far in several areas. Very small restaurants and taverns will be forced out of business if they have to be totally nonsmoking."

Mr. Glendening said the regulation should only apply to restaurants and bars above a certain size, which he hopes to determine through talks with people on both sides of the issue.

He also wants to determine if the regulation would open private companies to lawsuits by workers who claim that they were hurt by secondhand smoke.

"If that is true, then that is unreasonable . . . and would make us less competitive in terms of business development," he said.

"There should be a reasonable balance between protecting the public from smoking and the clearly harmful nature of secondhand smoke and, on the other hand, still being fair to the business community. Before we go pursuing this in court, we ought to have everyone at the table and see if we can reach a clear consensus," he said.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the regulation would not subject businesses to employee lawsuits if they made reasonable efforts to follow it, such as by posting "no smoking" signs.

Even if a company violated the regulation for years, he said, an employee would have to the prove that his injury was caused by secondhand smoke in the workplace.

Mr. Curran, a Democrat seeking re-election, has been defending the regulation in court. He said he would encourage the next governor to push the case.

His Republican challenger, Richard D. Bennett, has said he opposes the smoking ban.

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