Smoking booth has government in haze Officials reconsider wisdom of kiosk for workers who smoke

September 30, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Howard County government, known for having one of the toughest anti-smoking laws on the East Coast, built a penalty box of sorts for its employees yesterday: a glass smoking booth where smokers could gather for an indoors puff in the great outdoors.

Then the county suddenly decided to take it down, as officials realized their thinking on this smoking box thing might have been a bit hazy.

"We need to think it through a little bit more clearly," said county spokeswoman Vicki Cox, who wasn't aware the booth was being built until it was half-completed yesterday. "Things moved a little more quickly than we'd planned."

No one in county government took credit yesterday for the idea of building the structure, which resembles a bus stop in size and shape and costs an estimated $3,000.

The idea was supported by Bev Wilhide, an assistant to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, as a way to address complaints about smoke near public entryways and small fires caused by discarded cigarettes. But Wilhide said it was Public Works Director James Irvin who offered to build a smoking booth as a solution.

Irvin said it wasn't his idea, but it might have been suggested by someone else in his department.

"We are responsible for putting it up, or in this case not putting it up right now," Irvin said. The kiosk was being completed yesterday when officials decided it should come down, perhaps as early as today.

One group that is definitely not taking credit for the structure is the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Howard County.

"A smoking booth was never really a serious topic of conversation" for the coalition, said William A. Thies, a county employee who acts as Ecker's liaison to the group.

The coalition of anti-smoking activists is interested in seeing no smoking at all outside the George Howard government building complex. The group met briefly with Ecker this month to request that he declare the outdoors areas smoke-free, just as the indoors areas are smoke-free by county law.

For now, though, the coalition's request is on hold until officials see how a similar policy works at county Health Department offices.

Meanwhile, Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown wondered yesterday whether building a glass booth might be going too far.

"It's like we're going to put these people in a cage," Drown said. "The problem is we want to protect everybody in our society, but I don't know how far it goes."

County officials point out that they had not adopted any new policies telling smokers where they would have to smoke. They said they wanted to meet with employees and others about the subject of open-air smoking and make recommendations to the next county executive, who will be elected Nov. 3. The county has a strict law barring smoking in all restaurants unless they have a separate, completely enclosed space for smokers.

County officials ultimately decided yesterday that the booth should be taken down, in part because employees were caught by surprise, and in part because officials believed they might have erred in locating it near a well-trafficked entryway where some employees eat lunch.

Some employees smoked while watching the booth being built yesterday, and some employees building the booth smoked while working on it. Most employees wouldn't speak about it, but clearly some weren't pleased.

"I think it's absurd," said Monica M. Lewis, an administrative aide in the county Finance Department who characterized the booth as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Lewis, who says she smokes less than a pack a day, said it was odd for the county to build a designated smoking area even as it tries to persuade its smoking employees to quit by offering free cessation programs.

"It's a mixed message," she said.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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