Law against smoking pursued Officials audit sales at bars, restaurants for proper licensing

August 04, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

In a sign of Howard County's continued drive to enforce its strict anti-smoking law, officials have audited sales at 13 bars and restaurants in the past month to ensure they are properly licensed.

The move came amid concerns that some establishments were trying to skirt the law by licensing themselves incorrectly as bars -- instead of restaurants -- which would give them more leeway in allowing smoking. Bars must have more sales from alcohol than food.

Though county officials did not find such problems, the inspections and new legislation proposed by anti-smoking groups indicate continued pressure to control smoking in Howard County, which has one of the strictest such policies on the East Coast.

We're "just trying to make this county a healthier place," said Peg Browning, chairwoman of the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Howard County. "It has to be a health issue."

The law calls for restaurants and bars that allow smoking to install separately ventilated enclosed areas to separate smokers from nonsmokers.

Sgt. Dave Richards, staff inspector for the county police, said concerns were raised that some establishments might be seizing on a perceived loophole in the law that allowed bars to make their nonsmoking areas as small as one table -- as long as it was separately ventilated. Restaurants must restrict smoking to a closed-off bar area.

"It didn't seem proper that the law could be circumvented in that way," Richards said. "It seems the existence of the loophole spread throughout the rumor mill of the bar community."

County officials said they have since interpreted the law -- which all agree is confusing -- to mean that bars must establish a nonsmoking area that is "reasonable" in proportion to the total area.

Richards said he knew of two bars in the county that were not in compliance with the law. One -- Phoenix Emporium in Ellicott City -- had previously claimed that its vestibule was its nonsmoking area, allowing patrons to smoke throughout the bar. Richards said the Phoenix plans to make its second floor the nonsmoking area after being told of the new interpretation of the law.

Said Phoenix owner George Goeller: "I don't want to discuss it at all. I'm dealing with it with Howard County."

Richards declined to name the second bar he said is not in compliance with the law.

The records checks, carried out by the liquor inspector and a county auditor, found five establishments that will be told to change their licenses.

Some must go from restaurant to bar and others must change from bar to restaurant, county officials said.

Barbara Russell, a senior administrative analyst for the county, said the smoking status of the establishments, however, would likely not have to change with the new license.

"Indications are that most of them may be in compliance," Russell said.

Browning's coalition is pressing for legislation that would make it illegal to smoke right outside county buildings. All county buildings have smoke-free indoors, but people can smoke outside entryways.

"People have to walk through that wall of smoke to get through the building," Browning said.

The county Health Department is considering putting the policy in place, said Patti Pilpel, a Health Department staff member for the anti-smoking coalition. Health departments in Anne Arundel and Frederick counties have such policies, she said.

The anti-smoking coalition has proposed such legislation to county officials and their challengers. Members said the lawmakers indicated they would research the idea.

For some, the legislation takes Howard's famed anti-smoking push one step too far.

Said County Councilman Darrel E. Drown: "I really have to think long and hard about that."

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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