After months of pushing Howard County officials to enforce the strictest smoking law in Maryland, anti-smoking activists are now trying to go beyond it -- by filing civil-rights complaints against the 11 county restaurants that still legally allow smoking.
Civil rights complaints like those mailed to the county's Office of Human Rights last week are an increasingly common tactic for anti-smoking activists as they try to use the broad powers of anti-discrimination laws to end smoking in public places.
County officials and some local activists are not comfortable with the more aggressive tactic. County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he might try to instruct the county Office of Human Rights that the complaint is outside its jurisdiction.
And restaurant owners -- already struggling with a tough, and in many cases costly, new law -- remain in the middle of the war over smoking.
The Coalition for Smoke Free Maryland Workplaces, based in Rockville, said it mailed the complaints Thursday to the county agency on behalf of "a number of people" who suffer from asthma, emphysema, allergies and other breathing difficulties that make it dangerous for them to enter rooms with cigarette smoke.
The complaints argue that the separately ventilated, enclosed bar areas permitted by Howard's tough anti-smoking law are not accessible to these people -- in the same way a restaurant with steps is not accessible to people in wheelchairs.
"This is a wake-up call to these last 11 holdouts to join the nearly 300 other county restaurants that are now smoke-free," said Al Ertel, co-chairman of the coalition.
The complaints name five restaurants in or near Columbia: Clyde's and Bennigan's in Town Center, TGI Friday's in the Columbia Restaurant Park, Michael's Pub in Kings Contrivance and McAllister's off Route 108.
The other six restaurants named are in Ellicott City: Captain's Choice, Kelsey's, Jilly's, Cocao Lane, Sidestreets and PJ's.
The 11 restaurants have worked with county officials in hopes of complying with the law, which bans smoking in the county's 220 restaurants without liquor licenses and sharply limits it in the 90 restaurants with liquor licenses.
Since July 1, restaurants that serve liquor may permit smoking only in enclosed, separately ventilated bar areas.
That is stricter than state law, which allows some smoking in all restaurants and does not require separate ventilation for smoking areas.
The 11 restaurants named in the complaints were singled out because they have, or are building, the separately ventilated bar areas. The construction is costing some restaurant owners as much as $100,000.
Pat Patterson, the owner of PJ's and a restaurateur considered progressive by local anti-smoking activists because he banned smoking in dining areas more than two years ago, called the coalition members "zealots."
"They're not going to be satisfied ever, until they ban smoking everywhere," Patterson said. "We're caught in the middle."
Also critical was Peg Browning of Ellicott City, who lost her larynx to cancer and now counsels schoolchildren on the dangers of cigarettes.
"As a member of the Commission on Disability Issues, I think it's ridiculous," Browning said, adding that she does not speak for the commission, a county board that has not discussed the new anti-smoking tactic.
Restaurants also get sympathy from Ecker, a Republican who in 1993 unsuccessfully vetoed the anti-smoking law but whose administration, with the prodding of anti-smoking activists, has worked to enforce the law since it took effect in July.
"I think it's the wrong way to go," Ecker said. "If they want to get the law changed, they should go to the County Council or the courts."
This week, he said, he might ask the Office of Human Rights, which has never dealt with discrimination cases based on smoking, to not consider the complaints, although he acknowledged that might not be within his power as county executive.
"I don't think the Office of Human Rights was set up for this, to change the law," Ecker said. "They're supposed to enforce the law."
Ertel said, "I think I'd encourage Dr. Ecker to take a look at what's in the law."
He also held open the possibility of taking the cases to court or filing a complaint, based on the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, with the U.S. Justice Department.
When complaints arrive at Howard's Office of Human Rights, the office typically spends 15 days determining whether it has jurisdiction, 30 days attempting conciliation and several months investigating before bringing the case to a public forum, said Administrator James E. Henson Sr.
Only in that last phase, in which both sides make their cases before a three-person panel in a courtlike setting, are cases public. These complaints are public now because the anti-smoking coalition released a statement about them.
The restaurant owners and managers named in the complaints were not aware of them before a reporter called Friday, but all said they were unhappy that a new fight over smoking looms.
"There has got to be accommodation, not prohibition," said Song NTC Choe, manager of Captain's Choice. "What they're doing is pushing businesses out of the county."
Pub Date: 10/06/96