Free from smoke

October 11, 2004

CONSIDERING a career in the hospitality industry, perhaps as a bartender or waitress? Here's how to prepare: Drive out to Baltimore's Harbor Tunnel, wait until you are surrounded by traffic, roll down a window and inhale the noxious fumes. That's a small sample of what you'll be facing in restaurants and bars that permit smoking.

A new study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine used Interstate 95 and a tollbooth outside the tunnel as a barometer to judge air quality in some Wilmington, Del., bars, a pool hall and a casino. Guess what? You're better off sucking in tailpipe exhaust. The amount of particulate air pollution was found to be much worse in a smoke-filled bar -- nearly five times the EPA's air quality standard. And that's no joke -- these pollutants increase the risk of respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

But the study also found that when Delaware instituted a ban on smoking nearly two years ago, things changed dramatically. The air instantly became as safe inside the pool hall as it was outside. Researchers say their study proves that fancy indoor ventilation systems don't work -- only banning smoking outright keeps these carcinogenic particles out of the air.

It's time Maryland reconsidered its own workplace smoking policies, specifically the exemption given hotel rooms, bars and certain restaurants. Seven states, including Delaware, and at least 232 municipalities across the country require all places of work to be smoke-free.

This isn't primarily for the benefit of patrons -- people can choose not to walk inside a smoke-filled business, after all -- but for the sake of employees who have a prolonged and unavoidable exposure. Nobody deserves to be put at greater risk of lung cancer simply because it conveniences customers.

When the General Assembly carved out the exemption nearly a decade ago, legislators were told that banning smoking would do tremendous damage to the hospitality industry. But that doesn't appear to be the experience elsewhere. Two Maryland counties have adopted bans on smoking in restaurants -- Montgomery and Talbot -- with modest economic effect. Tax records show that restaurant and bar sales are growing in Montgomery County as they are in smoke-free communities from Los Angeles to New York and from Austin, Texas, to Minot, N.D.

According to polls commissioned by anti-smoking advocates, 70 percent of Maryland voters support a full smoking ban. It's time the lawmakers in Annapolis did, too. Last year, legislation to do just that lost by a single vote in the Senate Finance Committee, and advocates say the bill is virtually certain to pass the House. It doesn't take a scientist to see that change is in the air. Might a smoking ban inconvenience bar and restaurant customers who smoke? We hope it would. Anti-smoking ordinances do more than improve the ambience. Cleaning up the air saves lives, and discouraging people from smoking spares them, too.

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