Smoking ban dies again in Senate panel

Patrons can still puff in bars and restaurants

Middleton casts deciding vote

But chairman warns he may switch next year

February 21, 2004|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

About 5,000 bars and restaurants are among the last workplaces left in Maryland where it's legal to smoke - and they apparently will stay that way for at least another year.

A state Senate panel voted down yesterday a bill that would ban smoking in most public areas and workplaces. The move by the Senate Finance Committee, which struck down a similar bill last year, effectively ends the debate in the full Senate and makes it highly unlikely a similar House bill would proceed.

Committee Chairman Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, cast the deciding vote in the 6-5 tally, but pledged to pass a measure next year if some restaurants don't go smoke-free on their own.

Supporters of legislation, including the American Lung Association and a coalition of government and health advocates, had believed that a statewide smoking restriction had a better chance in Annapolis this winter because of national momentum. But opponents successfully made their case that a ban would pose economic hardship, particularly for small restaurants and bars.

Since California banned smoking more than a decade ago, several states have prohibited smoking in workplaces, including restaurants and bars. Delaware, New York, Florida, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Utah and about 100 municipalities have done so; Georgia and Washington, D.C., are considering bans.

In Maryland, Montgomery, Howard and Talbot counties and the cities of Rockville and Tacoma Park have enacted bans or restrictions on smoking in bars and restaurants.

"Advocates have done an incredible job bringing the issue to the forefront, and they're right, nonsmokers don't have a lot of options to go smoke-free," Middleton said. "But there are restaurant owners who've invested their life's savings and they say `I'm out of business' from this."'

Middleton delayed the vote for several hours yesterday to consider compromises to allow smoking in sports bars or to set aside rooms for smokers, but decided they were unworkable.

Instead, he wants local tourism boards and state economic developers to devise promotions so that restaurants that voluntarily go smoke-free see an organized effort to attract new customers to replace smokers who leave them.

If the effort fails, "I pledge that something will come out of this committee next year," Middleton said. "The restaurant owners need to know the writing is on the wall."

Other committee members said they feared the economic consequences of a ban.

Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said the state should consider alternatives such as compensating bar owners who stop selling cigarettes.

However, supporters on the committee cited the health of workers and their patrons. "A lot of people have no choice but to work [in a bar or restaurant], and they shouldn't have to work in that environment," said Sen. Delores G. Kelly, also a Baltimore Democrat.

For now, however, the vote means owners of food and drink establishments who lobbied against the bill can exhale.

One is Claude J. Anderson, corporate operations manager for Clyde's Restaurant Group. It owns four restaurants in Maryland, including two in Montgomery County, which enacted its own local smoking ban in October. Bar sales are down about 25 percent at Clyde's in Chevy Chase because customers can't smoke, he said. He wants to protect his other restaurants.

"After happy hour, there isn't much business," he said of the Clyde's just a few blocks from the boundary with Washington, which has no ban. "If people are lingering, they're linger somewhere else. They say 80 to 90 percent of people in Montgomery County don't smoke, but about 80 percent of my bar customers do."

At the Anchor Inn Seafood Restaurant in Wheaton, owner Seley Scaggs said business at his attached sports bar is down about 40 percent.

There have been other losers, the Restaurant Association of Maryland said. The trade group, which has 3,000 members, estimates that customers in Montgomery County bars dropped by 30 percent to 50 percent after the smoking ban began there last October. They also attribute the recent closing of five restaurants to the ban.

Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the association, said some restaurants already have volunteered to go smoke-free. But the group will push for tax credits or other incentives for more businesses to follow suit.

Supporters of a ban say there are more economic reasons to prohibit smoking than to allow it. They plan to lobby at the local level during the coming year.

Phil Andrews, a Montgomery County councilman and an architect of the ban there, said while there have been some closings, 30 restaurants - not all with bars - have sought licenses to open since the smoking ban began there.

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