Assembly trims ban on smoking in the workplace

March 21, 1995|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

A bill weakening Maryland's landmark workplace smoking ban easily won final approval in the state legislature last night.

The House of Delegates voted 92 to 39 to exempt hotels, bars and many restaurants from the ban, which takes effect Monday. A few hours later, the Senate agreed, 35 to 11.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised to veto the bill "with a great deal of personal conviction." But legislators say they have enough votes to override the veto as early as next week.

Even in its watered-down form, the ban will be one of the toughest in the nation, legislators say. It forbids smoking in offices, factories, stores, restaurants without liquor licenses, and even work vehicles occupied by more than one employee.

Businesses will be allowed to set up specially ventilated, enclosed employee lounges for smoking.

But critics say such rooms would be costly and that most smokers will have to step outside for a cigarette.

It is unclear when the exemptions for hotels, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol will begin.

Legislators say their bill will become law as soon as they override the veto, but the governor contends the exemptions cannot take effect until June 1. Ultimately, a court may have to decide.

Maryland's ban has attracted national attention because it is among the first to be adopted through state occupational safety and health regulations, rather than legislation.

At an anti-smoking rally in Annapolis last night, the governor criticized the tobacco industry and those who claim the ban is anti-business. "For the health of Marylanders, for the health of workers, for the health of our families, we must enact this ban," he told more than 100 people outside the State House.

Lawmakers say they decided to push for the exceptions after hearing complaints from the "hospitality" industry. Hotels, bars, restaurants and convention centers howled that they would lose business -- and Maryland would lose tourists -- if the ban went into effect as written.

Besides bars and hotels, the bill approved last night exempts businesses with liquor licenses, including restaurants, bowling alleys, concert halls, veterans groups and private clubs.

The measure gives state regulators the power to require hotels and restaurants to set aside 50 percent to 60 percent of their space for nonsmoking sections. Those businesses, however, could go smoke-free if they wanted.

The governor has a week from today to veto or sign the bill. In the meantime, Mr. Glendening said he plans to continue seeking a compromise with the legislature, although one has eluded him thus far.

He also said his belief that the exemptions in the bill cannot take effect until June 1 is based on advice from state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Mr. Glendening said he will advise state officials to begin enforcement of the original ban -- which includes restaurants, hotels and bars -- on Monday.

In his view, supporters of the original ban could keep the exemptions from taking effect for 20 months by petitioning the bill to a referendum. If they gather enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot, the exemptions would be suspended until the November 1996 election.

However, legislative leaders disagree. Their legal advisers say the exemptions will take effect as soon as the veto is overridden.

Smoking will be allowed in bars, restaurants and hotels within days after the ban takes effect Monday and would continue during a referendum drive, they contend.

Eric Gally, president of Smoke Free Maryland, an anti-smoking group, said his coalition has not decided whether to launch a petition drive. "Certainly everyone is tempted by it," he said.

Tobacco companies have tried to take a low profile on the issue in Annapolis. Tobacco Institute lobbyist William J. Pitcher said: "We're in favor of the [exemptions] bill as an industry, but we're not working it."

Cigarette manufacturers have taken a back seat to local restaurants, bars, and hotels. "It's a matter for the tourist industry," Mr. Pitcher said.

Legislators are watering down the ban to help "small businesses," not the tobacco industry, said one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

Anti-smoking activists, however, say they believe cigarette manufacturers are more involved than anyone admits. "The legislators are in denial," said Shelley M. Buckingham of the American Lung Association of Maryland. "They're only protecting the tobacco industry." Bars and restaurants are "just a convenient front" for the tobacco industry, said Democratic Del. Leon G. Billings of Montgomery County.

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