Statewide public smoking ban proposed

Latest bid at legislation would include restaurants and bars, lawmakers say

December 17, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Edward Cooper kicked his cigarette habit 17 years ago, but he can't keep smoke out of his lungs.

The 48-year-old database analyst from Hyattsville has recently become a billiards fan and plays regularly in a competitive pool league, where a blanket of tobacco fumes hangs over the tables and patrons prop open the fire door for relief.

"Now that I'm in that environment, I feel like I'm smoking cigarettes three nights a week," Cooper said. "If it wasn't for the love of the game, I think I would have quit."

At a news conference yesterday in Annapolis, Cooper joined a group of activist restaurant employees, Smoke Free Maryland, the American Cancer Society and state lawmakers in launching the latest effort to ban smoking from all indoor public places in Maryland, including bars and restaurants.

"It needs to happen now. It needs to happen today," said Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's County Democrat who said she will be a lead sponsor of legislation to snuff out cigarettes, cigars and pipes.

Advocates aim to make Maryland the seventh state with such a ban, joining Delaware, California, New York, Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Many localities have similar restrictions, including Montgomery County in Maryland, as wells as New York City and Boston.

Waiting times for tables at smoke-free restaurants in Montgomery are up, said Democratic Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery resident who is also backing the bill. And Delaware restaurants are seeing an overflow of vacationers from Ocean City looking for cleaner places to eat meals, she said.

"The people are speaking out and saying, `We want to sit in a clean environment,'" Ruben said. "Smoke-free legislation will not hurt our businesses."

Industry representatives vehemently disagree. Restaurant sales in Montgomery have dropped 30 percent to 50 percent since the countywide smoking ban took effect in October, said Melvin Thompson, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

"Under what rock are they living?" Thompson asked, referring to the lawmakers sponsoring the bills. "What kind of leaders don't know what is going on in their own backyards?"

He said lawmakers should think hard before enacting a statewide ban that would put people out of work.

"Restaurants are very different from most other workplace environments," Thompson said. "We're a venue where people come specifically to drink and smoke. We cater to that."

The prospects for the law are uncertain, with key lawmakers expressing doubts and a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. saying he doesn't favor a statewide prohibition.

"He would need convincing. The governor is not a smoker, but he doesn't believe that smoking should be banned in all public venues," said spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. DeLeaver stopped short of saying Ehrlich would veto such a bill, saying the governor would want to see the legislation.

Democratic Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which would consider the bill, was dubious about its chances.

"I don't think it's got wings yet, but [proponents] are working it hard," Middleton said.

State law prevents smoking in indoor workplaces but exempts bars and allows restaurants to create smoking sections.

Jen Valente, 31, a waitress at Tsunami in Annapolis, said she hasn't smoked for two months and is trying to break a 10-year habit. A graduate student, Valente said she discovered through online research that state law treats restaurant workers differently.

"That's when I became outraged, and I became active," said Valente, who heads a newly formed group called Maryland BREATHE, an acronym for Bar and Restaurant Employees Advocating Together for Healthy Environments.

Many restaurant workers are young women and minorities who don't have the ability to find different jobs, Valente and others said. Those workers deserve the same protections those given to office workers, advocates said.

But Jack Milani, a vice-president of the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association and the owner of Monaghan's Pub in Woodlawn, said employees are free to work elsewhere.

"What we have found is people who work in bars and restaurants know that there is smoking," he said.

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