Howard's unhealthy choice

December 30, 2004|By Glenn E .Schneider

HOWARD COUNTY bans smoking everywhere indoors but in bars and restaurants, and the ordinance should be extended to include them.

A friend of mine whose husband is a bartender is mystified over why some county officials seem to place more value on a restaurant owner's 8-year-old investment than her spouse's life. She wonders why he doesn't deserve a safe and healthy workplace free of secondhand smoke.

Howard County passed its anti-smoking ordinance in 1993. But three years later, the County Office on Law interpreted it to allow smoking in all bars while restricting smoking in restaurants to separate rooms. Now, 70 eating and drinking establishments countywide allow smoking, and their number is growing.

This loophole allows health hazards to exist in these restaurants and bars. The County Council should update the law to make all public places and workplaces smoke-free, including restaurants and bars.

We're almost there. Three of the five council members have signed a pledge saying they will introduce or support legislation that makes workplaces and public places smoke-free. County Executive James N. Robey, the man behind the county's law to prevent tobacco sales to those under 18, is strangely undecided.

The research on secondhand smoke couldn't be more damning. It is one of only 50 substances on the planet known to cause cancer in humans. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that even 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke could trigger a heart attack.

Further, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers concluded this year that you cannot have acceptable air quality in the presence of secondhand smoke. With every breath, people are exposed to 4,000 poisons when they enter a restaurant or bar that allows smoking, even if there's a fancy ventilation system that removes the tobacco odor.

I'm sure it's hard to balance competing interests. But when it comes to protecting life, public health and worker safety, we rightfully expect elected officials to act with resolve.

When the anti-smoking law was passed, a handful of restaurateurs built separate smoking rooms so they could still allow smoking, even though they were not required to do that. They knew that secondhand smoke causes cancer and heart and lung disease, that exposing their employees and patrons to smoke could be a legal liability and that smoking sections, even if walled off and ventilated, are ineffective in protecting people's health.

Worker safety and public health should not be held hostage by a small band of restaurateurs who made a bad choice.

Restaurant and bars that go smoke-free have healthier, more-productive employees, lower insurance premiums, lower cleaning costs, fewer fires and less furniture damage.

Studies of sales tax data have shown that going smoke-free does not hurt restaurant sales, bar sales, tourism or jobs.

Recently, our Smoke Free coalition released data showing there are more restaurants and bars allowing smoking today than did so in 1995. Less than 10 percent of county residents smoke, but up to 77 percent of restaurants and bars in some county areas allow smoking, either in the entire establishment or in a walled-off smoke room. Slowly but surely, we are losing our right to breathe clean, safe, smoke-free air, while worker health protections are going up in smoke. We expect our elected officials to eliminate public health threats.

Glenn E. Schneider is the legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County, a coalition that includes the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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