No smoke, and not much ire Howard's ban: First fine imposed under year-old law, which has not harmed restaurant trade.

March 24, 1998

IT HAS BEEN more than a year since Howard County's anti-smoking law took effect, but only one restaurant has been fined for noncompliance.

That indicates the food and beverage industry is finding ways to abide by the law without losing as many customers as they feared.

Some restaurants have been hurt, but most have made the necessary adaptations and successfully continue their business.

The anti-smoking law fully took effect in January 1997. It requires the county's 300 restaurants to forbid smoking or to limit it to separately ventilated barrooms sealed off by doors, walls or glass panels from nonsmoking patrons in main dining rooms.

California's smoking ban in virtually every bar, nightclub and hotel lobby is more aggressive, but Howard's is considered one of the toughest no-smoking laws on the East Coast.

Until last week, only about five restaurants had been cited for violating the law and none of those establishments was fined. But Friday, the Gringada Cantina in Columbia's Harper's Choice village was fined $100 after an undercover police officer saw customers and waitresses continually leave open the door between the smoking section and dining area.

That few restaurants have been caught breaking the law doesn't mean it is universally popular.

Some restaurants still complain about the expense of creating separate smoking rooms. Others say they continue to lose customers to restaurants outside Howard that don't have to abide by the same restrictions.

Yet the waiting lines at many Howard establishments are proof that the law hasn't been a major impediment. Indeed, some restaurants may draw customers because they prohibit smoking.

The latest scientific studies estimate up to 60,000 Americans die each year from diseases attributable to secondhand smoke. Exposure to it significantly hastens hardening of the arteries. As more people seek healthy lifestyles, restaurants that restrict smoking will grow in popularity.

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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