Duncan vetoes bill targeting secondhand smoke

Law would have banned lighting up at home if fumes imperil neighbor

November 28, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan reversed course yesterday and vetoed a bill that would have barred county residents from lighting up a cigarette at home if the smoke threatened a neighbor's health.

Defeating the measure, which placed cigarette smoke on a par with indoor air pollutants such as radon and mold, had become a cause celebre for tobacco companies and conservative commentators. ABC-TV commentator George Will said the County Council overreached its authority, and editorials deriding the measure appeared as far away as western Canada.

Backers of the bill, approved by the council 6-2 on Nov. 20 with one abstention, said the legislation was to protect people with asthma, heart problems and other conditions that make them especially vulnerable to secondhand smoke. Landlords as well as tenants could have been held liable if building ventilation systems spread smoke into other apartments.

"The victims are people who have a known human carcinogen coming into their buildings," said Alice Helm, co-chairman of the Smoke-Free Montgomery Coalition, an advocacy group. "This is one of the more duplicitous things I've seen Duncan do."

Duncan, a Democrat, had originally said he would sign the bill because he considers it a necessary update of the county's 25-year-old clean air law. The measure would have added indoor pollutants such as radon and cigarette smoke to the many outdoor pollutants already regulated by the county.

But upon reflection, Duncan said, he decided the tobacco smoke provision could do more harm than good by forcing the county to be a referee in neighborhood disputes. Violators could have been fined up to $500 for a first offense and $750 for a second violation.

"It has become clear that the tobacco smoke provisions will be nothing more than a tool to be used in squabbles between neighbors, and that significant resources will be required to address these complaints," Duncan said in his veto message.

Council President Blair Ewing said he believes the panel will pass a version of the bill without the smoking language. But Ewing, a Democrat who is considering challenging Duncan for county executive next year, said that would leave a hole in the measure.

Also, overriding the veto isn't likely, Ewing said.

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