Panel hears proposal to extend ban on smoking

Law would affect bars, other businesses in state

February 28, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Cigarette smoking would be banned in nearly every business in Maryland - including bars and restaurants - under legislation that would give the state one of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the country.

Proponents call the bill heard by a Senate committee yesterday the Clean Indoor Act of 2003 and say it would go a long way toward protecting people from the dangers of secondhand smoke. Opponents call it a Draconian measure that would do serious harm to Maryland's businesses.

"What we're trying to do here is give a reprieve to our citizens from the death penalty they would have from indoor smoking," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat and sponsor of the bill heard before the Senate Finance Committee. "I know we're up against a tough lobby. I'm not fooling myself. I feel this legislation will provide a healthier life, a longer life."

A similar bill will be heard in the House of Delegates next month.

Under current law, smoking is prohibited in many public places, including portions of restaurants, which are required to have no-smoking sections. The new legislation, modeled on a law passed in Delaware last year, would extend the ban into all parts of restaurants, bars, pool halls, nursing homes and more.

California was the first state to institute such a ban, and several other states are considering similar action this year.

The intention is to provide a healthy workplace for waitresses and bartenders now breathing secondhand smoke and a healthy setting for diners - especially those who suffer from respiratory illness.

"The good news is everybody wins if we pass this law," said Anne Marie O'Keefe, a volunteer with the American Lung Association of Maryland. "The only harm will be done to tobacco companies."

Not exactly, said lobbyists for the state's restaurant, hotel and tourism industries. They argue that in Delaware, business has been down 35 percent to 40 percent this winter in bars within five miles of the state's borders, where it is easy for smokers to find a place to light up.

They also say conventions might bypass the state. Delaware's racetracks, since going smoke-free, have seen a dip in business, they say.

"It's hard to imagine there is any structure in the state that is not a workplace," said Champe C. McCulloch, who represents the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association and the Maryland Tourism Council. "This is a prohibition on smoking anywhere."

Bo Hardesty, owner of the Narrows Restaurant in Grasonville, said he voluntarily went smoke-free in May and his business increased by 2 percent. But Claude Andersen of the Clyde's Restaurant Group said he lost customers after a 1997 Howard County law requiring that smoking areas be enclosed led him to ban smoking in the bar at the popular Columbia location.

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said he doesn't believe the governor would support the measure if it should make it to his desk.

"It takes the restrictions far too far," he said. "Cigarette smoking is still legal."

In 1995, the legislature allowed restaurants that did not have bar areas to allow smoking in up to 40 percent of the establishment, but it had to be confined to a separate, enclosed area. This bill would reverse that, said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors.

"Whether someone likes it [smoking] or not," he said, "people should be left alone."

In 2001, the village of Friendship Heights, a condominium community of 5,000 in Montgomery County, tried to go even further than Ruben's bill - banning smoking outdoors as well. The village council later rescinded the ordinance.

Having a no-smoking section isn't good enough to keep diners smoke-free if there is a smoking section just across the room, said Brian Holmes, whose granddaughter suffers from serious asthma. "I really can't take her anywhere," he said. Denise Bellows, 20, a public health major at the University of Maryland, College Park, works as a waitress to help pay for school. She told the committee that she gets colds and sore throats after working long shifts in the bar and restaurant.

"When it gets really busy," she said, "it's just one big cloud of smoke."

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