Pioneer or paper tiger? Heralded anti-smoking statute must now be enforced.

September 10, 1996

THE TIME has come for Howard County to show that its strict new law prohibiting smoking in restaurants is more than a paper tiger.

The law, adopted after a long legislative struggle three years ago, affects the county's 90 restaurants that serve liquor, in addition to the 220 eateries that don't. Although a slight defect in the legislation could keep the air smoky in 39 bars in Howard, the law as written dramatically improves indoor air quality at county establishments.

Restaurants serving liquor must prohibit smoking unless they have -- or have filed plans to build -- enclosed and ventilated smoking areas that separate the customers in them from patrons who don't want to inhale second-hand smoke. Restaurants that don't serve liquor have been required to be smoke-free since July 1. All of them must post no-smoking signs in highly visible places. Violators of the law, originally sponsored by Councilman C. Vernon Gray, could face fines of up to $250.

Some restaurateurs grumble that the law will drive diners to counties without such restrictions. Some customers may drive to Baltimore or Montgomery counties to light up. But perhaps equal or greater numbers of diners from those counties might drive to Howard for a guaranteed breath of fresh air.

A handful of restaurant owners who have built enclosed smoke-free areas might find that their heavy investments will benefit them in the long run. Even bar owners may find it in their financial interest and in the interest of their employees' health to eliminate smoking. After all, bars and restaurants are workplaces for the waitresses and bartenders whose jobs require them to inhale customers' smoke.

Activists pledge that dozens of people will monitor restaurants for compliance with the law. If this happens, violations will not go unnoticed.

When the county receives reports of scofflaws, it must send consistent and unequivocal messages that it will not tolerate violations. In the past, there has been some confusion over whether the administration of County Executive Charles I. Ecker firmly supported the law. The county must use its enforcement power and make it easier for restaurant patrons to breathe clean air at dinner-time.

Pub Date: 9/10/96

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