Clearing the air

March 10, 2005

IN MARYLAND, a person can't smoke in most places of business. Light up in a retail store, for instance, and you're eligible for a $25 fine. This is not because state government is anybody's nanny. This is because other people have to breathe the same air.

Secondhand smoke kills. The fact is not in dispute - at least not within the scientific community. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 3,000 nonsmoking adults die of lung cancer each year as a result of exposure to other people's tobacco smoke.

But for a decade, there's been a gaping hole in the Maryland anti-smoking law. Certain restaurants and most bars and taverns can permit smoking. Except in a handful of towns and two counties (Montgomery and Talbot) where smoking in such places is banned outright, a person can order a meal or have a drink and light up a cigarette. Such behavior has consequences for the smoker's health, of course, but at least that's the smoker's choice. Less fortunate are the employees of these establishments who can't so easily escape this threat.

The General Assembly has an opportunity to correct the problem. But the necessary legislation is already in trouble. Last Friday, the Senate Finance Committee voted down a proposal to ban smoking in all indoor places of employment on a 5-5 tie. The deciding vote (or more accurately, non-vote) came from the committee's chairman, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, who chose to abstain. This was unfortunate, particularly since recent polls show that Southern Maryland residents overwhelmingly support a ban.

Still, there is hope. It's now up to the House Health and Government Operations Committee to approve a bill that both chambers can live with. Two amendments may help soften the measure enough to peel away some past opposition. One would exempt tobacco shops; the other would delay the ban until July 1 of next year. Both seem reasonable under the circumstances.

Many tavern owners oppose the legislation, however. An estimated 5,000 bars would be affected. No doubt some depend on the patronage of smokers. But experience elsewhere suggests a ban would do no great economic harm. There's certainly been no harm in Montgomery County, where food and beverage sales have increased since the county's ban went into effect in 2003. And it hasn't been the experience in the seven states with similar no-smoking laws, including neighboring Delaware, a state with an unmistakably pro-business reputation.

Might there be individual businesses that do lose some customers, at least in the short term? Maybe. But that possibility has to be weighed against an absolute certainty: Lives will be saved by clearing the air. A new California study concludes that secondhand smoke puts women at far greater risk of developing breast cancer. Bartenders and waitresses shouldn't have to face such a threat. Neither should the 85 percent of Maryland residents who don't smoke at all.

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