Smoking law not so tough on taverns Bars nearly exempt under recent county legal interpretation

Law takes effect July 1

Some restaurants spending thousands to meet requirements

June 23, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

To understand Howard County's new anti-smoking law, take a walk up Ellicott City's Main Street and see how the law -- once considered among the East Coast's strictest -- now is a patchwork of rules from tough to laughable.

A dozen restaurants and bars inhabit the old stone buildings along this historic street. After the law takes effect July 1, some will spend thousands to renovate. Some will turn away smokers. Some will quietly defy the law. And some -- enjoying virtual exemptions -- will do almost nothing at all.

"I just think a lot of people are just going to ignore it," said Robert Costella, co-owner of E.C. Does It Cafe, a restaurant with an attached bar. He plans to label his bar nonsmoking, but adds he has limited ability to enforce the law: "How can I police every customer in this bar?"

If he does, smokers just might walk up the street to the Judge's Bench, a smoker's haven with dark wood walls and the persistent odor of old ashtray. It enjoys a virtual exemption from the new law thanks to a sympathetic interpretation by one of the county's lawyers.

Or Costella's customers might walk down the street, to the Trolley Stop tavern. It's just over the Patapsco River in Oella -- also old, also cute, but in Baltimore County, where Howard's new smoking law won't apply.

"I live and die by the market. I have to be competitive," Costella said, turning his anger to Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the law's sponsor. "He's just a bureaucrat."

Gray three years ago pushed the law through after months of contentious debate that included a vote to override the veto of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican.

At the time, it was considered one of the East Coast's toughest anti-smoking laws since it sought to sharply reduce the amount of smoking in both restaurants and bars.

The law, as understood then, would have eliminated smoking in restaurants, except in sealed-off, separately ventilated bar sections.

And in bars -- even those that serve some food -- smoking would have been permitted only in sealed-off separately ventilated rooms taking up less than half of the bar.

But this May, as officials prepared to begin enforcing the law, a county lawyer spotted a drafting error and rendered an interpretation that effectively removes the size restrictions on the nonsmoking section of bars.

Restaurants without bars still must eliminate smoking July 1. Other restaurants must spend thousands on new ventilation systems, doors and windows to confine smoke to their bars.

But pure bars -- establishments with Class D licenses because they serve more alcohol than food -- need do nothing more than set aside a nonsmoking section that could be the size of a phone booth.

Howard has 39 bars and 90 restaurants licensed to sell liquor. There are also 220 restaurants that do not have liquor licenses.

"A Class D tavern has an advantage," said Ecker. "I do think that they're not being treated equally."

Gray said the law still contains valuable restrictions against smoking. But he criticized the county's Office of Law for interpreting a vague passage in a way that benefits smokers rather than nonsmokers.

"My preference would be to let the courts interpret the law," said Gray.

The issue has grown so contentious that some county officials -- though not Ecker -- are expecting such a court challenge, either from an aggrieved restaurant owner or an anti-smoking group.

Both the Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces and a national group, Action on Smoking and Health, have written to Ecker to raise the possibility of legal action if the county doesn't enforce the law vigorously.

They took particular exception to Ecker's decision last month giving a six-month grace period to help bars and restaurants more easily comply. No fines will be issued until Jan. 1, 1997.

The Maryland coalition said its members -- about 100 in Howard County and more than 1,000 statewide -- will note which bars and restaurants are not complying and file complaints with police.

Not everybody has reacted so belligerently to the law. Tersiguel's, a French restaurant on Ellicott City's Main Street, eliminated smoking on its own at the beginning of 1995.

The restaurant had its best year ever after it banned smoking. And owner Fernand Tersiguel stopped waking up in the night with breathing trouble.

PJ's of Ellicott City, a bar and restaurant also on Main Street, already prohibits smoking everywhere but the bar, which has its own ventilation system. The new law will force owner Pat Patterson to build a door on the bar, but probably nothing else.

He wonders if Howard and other counties should go farther.

"I've always had trouble with that second-hand smoke," Patterson said. "If it is that big of a health problem, I think none of us has the right to impose a so-called death sentence on nonsmokers but it's a hard call."

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