Smoking ban enforcement is criticized Taylor and Miller ask Glendening to rein in inspectors

Policy changed in July

Original MOSH rules said all complaints cannot be checked

November 04, 1995|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

Legislative leaders said this week that inspectors of businesses have been too aggressive in their enforcement of Maryland's sweeping workplace smoking ban, and they have asked the governor to order them to back off.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., in a Nov. 1 letter to Gov. Parris N. $$ Glendening, said the governor should direct the inspectors to quit responding to customer complaints about violations of the smoking ban.

Restaurants and other businesses, they said in their two-page ,, letter, were told repeatedly by the administration when the smoking regulations were pending that inspectors would respond only to employee complaints -- not those from customers.

They noted that even the Compliance Guidelines brochure produced by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration and distributed to employers states: "We have no authority to respond to complaints from patrons."

For MOSH inspectors now to do otherwise, they said, was a "direct contradiction" of previous promises.

The two presiding officers said the change in procedures by MOSH inspectors only fuels the distrust many businesses have of government and reinforces Maryland's reputation as a heavily regulated, anti-business state.

Administration officials admitted that MOSH is conducting inspections in a way it promised it would not do. But spokeswomen for the governor and the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said the switch was justified because it protects employees from the risks of second-hand smoke.

They said MOSH will continue to respond to customer complaints as well as complaints from employees.

"The governor is concerned first and foremost with protecting the health of Marylanders," said Dianna D. Rosborough, his press secretary.

Maryland's landmark workplace smoking ban took effect on March 27, but the state said it would not fine first-time violators for the first six months.

The ban affects offices, factories, stores and other indoor workplaces, although bars are exempt.

Restaurants with alcoholic beverage licenses may permit smoking in the bar area or a separate, enclosed room.

Any business can allow employees to smoke in separate enclosed lounges with an outdoor exhaust system.

Karen Napolitano, the Labor, Licensing and Regulation spokeswoman, said that during the first three months after the ban went into effect, MOSH responded only to complaints from employees and sent businesses information packets to help them understand the regulations. Beginning July 1, however, she said the policy was modified "to respond to calls from the public."

"It's difficult when you tell citizens you can't do anything," she said. "You need to be responsive. You need to go a little bit farther than that."

But House Speaker Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, said he believes MOSH has gone too far and has, in fact, exceeded its legal authority.

"One of the practical problems is MOSH is clearly operating outside of the letter of the law. That is pretty obvious," said Mr. Taylor, who as a presiding officer of the legislature received a warning letter from MOSH based on an anonymous complaint about smoking in the State House complex.

The speaker, who was in the bar and restaurant business for about 35 years, said the broader complaint process now being used by MOSH presents a practical problem for restaurateurs who could be the target of complaints generated by competitors.

Brendan Flanagan, a spokesman for the 23,000-member Maryland Restaurant Association, said, "The smoking law as it is now was a compromise. There was give and take on both sides when it was crafted. Many in the industry now feel like they were betrayed."

He said the shift to accepting complaints from customers as well as from employees had not hurt restaurants financially.

"The biggest disappointment over this whole issue is that many people in the business community feel like they can't trust those who are responsible for regulations in this state," he said.

But Al Ertel, chairman of the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces, said he did not understand why the shift was such a big deal.

"This law has been in effect for seven months. People should be obeying it," he said.

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