A Maryland community got the go-ahead yesterday to become the first in the country to outlaw smoking not just in public buildings, but almost everywhere outdoors.
In a move certain to escalate the nation's tobacco battles, a deeply divided Montgomery County Council voted to let the village of Friendship Heights prohibit smoking on publicly owned property - from the community center to all of its parks, streets and sidewalks.
The ban, which has drawn national attention, will go into effect as soon as signs are posted in the small, upscale neighborhood of mostly high-rise condominiums in Chevy Chase on the outskirts of Washington.
A security officer riding a motor scooter will be assigned to keep watch. Anyone caught lighting a cigarette off-limits, or discarding tobacco products, will get a warning. The second offense carries a $100 fine.
Anti-smoking activists applauded the council's 5-4 decision yesterday to uphold the Friendship Heights ordinance. But the president of the civic association and several residents of the community of 5,000 people said they were outraged. A leading Maryland tobacco lobbyist vowed an immediate court challenge.
Mayor Alfred Muller, a doctor who has championed making Friendship Heights' streets smoke-free, shrugged off the criticism. Too many people are victims of secondhand smoke, he told reporters crowded in the council building in Rockville, especially those with asthma and heart problems.
"This is not an attempt to punish smokers, but to diminish smoking," he said. "We're doing this for public health reasons."
Cleonice Tavani, president of the Friendship Heights Village Civic Association, said that even as a nonsmoker, she considers Muller's crusade "extreme."
"The village residents are overwhelmingly opposed," she said. "It's one thing to talk about banning smoking in stadiums; that makes sense. But everywhere outdoors? The sentiment we're getting is: `Are you kidding? Give me a break.'"
Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for Maryland's tobacco wholesalers, called the council action "absurd" and said his clients would appeal immediately to Circuit Court.
"It's government run amok," he said. "It makes a mockery of Montgomery County government when laws are passed that are so extreme and irrational like this one."
The Friendship Heights smoking ban is the most far-reaching in the nation, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, which tracks local ordinances.
More than 60 other towns and counties have adopted some type of outdoor smoking regulations, but the majority of them restrict the practice at stadiums, skating rinks or similar venues - or immediately outside buildings where smoking is banned.
Because Friendship Heights is largely made up of high-rise condominiums and apartments, there will be few outdoor places - beside balconies - where it will still be legal to smoke.
"Not a lot of places are ready for this," said Tim Filler, a program manager for Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, adding that some municipalities are working to make courthouses and other buildings smoke-free. "This is something that's at the end of the spectrum in smoke-free ordinances."
It's not quite as extraordinary in Montgomery, which has a reputation for strict anti-smoking laws. Not only is smoking forbidden in local office buildings, but the county is facing a court fight over its attempt last year to institute a ban in restaurants. More recently, the council required all convenience stores to put tobacco products out of the reach of minors.
The County Council debated for more than an hour whether it should give its blessing to the Friendship Heights ordinance. Four council members expressed strong reservations, saying it was too broadly written.
"I think secondhand smoke is certainly a public health threat," said Councilman Philip Andrews, a Democrat who proposed the restaurant smoking ban. "For laws to be respected, though, they have to be reasonable. In my view, this goes beyond what is justifiable."
Councilman Michael Subin, a Democrat, proposed a compromise to permit smoking on Friendship Heights' sidewalks except at community-sponsored events.
But his amendment was defeated after Republican Councilman Howard A. Denis, quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, made an impassioned plea to let the local community come up with its own rules. If the council rewrote the ordinance, said Denis, who lives in Friendship Heights, it would send a "chilling effect."
"I believe in respecting a lower level of government," he said. "I think it's very disparaging to have regulations rewritten at the 59th minute of the 11th hour."