A city smoke-free

April 17, 2005

ROBERT W. CURRAN is getting some razzing at his favorite Monday night haunt, Jerry's Belvedere on York Road. The Baltimore councilman is pushing legislation that would ban smoking in public places, a proposal that bar, restaurant and tavern owners say would torpedo business. But here's how Mr. Curran sees it: City Health Department statistics show that smoking-related illnesses kill far more Baltimoreans than alcohol, AIDS, car accidents, illegal drugs, murder and suicides combined. In Maryland, 8,000 people die annually from smoking-related illnesses. Given that dismal scenario, what's a little razzing?

A former smoker, Mr. Curran has his priorities straight. The question isn't whether an individual has the right to light up or not. It's whether the person seated at a nearby table or, more pertinently, serving the drinks has to suffer the consequences of this nasty habit. Secondhand tobacco smoke is lethal: For every eight smokers the tobacco industry kills, one nonsmoker dies with them. That's based on National Cancer Institute data.

This newspaper has supported legislation to extend the statewide workplace smoking ban to bars, restaurants, hotels and other public places. That would be a fairer way to safeguard the health of all citizens and level the economic field for businesses - Montgomery and Talbot counties ban smoking outright.

But the Baltimore City Council needn't wait for state lawmakers to muster up the courage to act. It should take the initiative and spare city residents and visitors any more damage to their health.

Restaurant and bar owners say a city smoking ban would mean lost business. But an analysis by the Maryland Attorney General's Office of 97 studies on the economic impact of smoking bans found claims of economic hardship to be specious. Of 21 peer review studies with no ties to the tobacco industry, none reported a negative impact on sales or employment.

City Council members who represent Fells Point, Canton and Federal Hill, areas flush with restaurants, bars and music clubs, oppose the measure. They say their constituents would lose patrons to establishments in nearby Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. But it's hard to imagine the bar scenes in Fells Point and Federal Hill shifting to Towson and Brooklyn just for a smoke.

Mr. Curran's bill defers the effective date of a ban until 2006 to give businesses time to adapt. He also would support a tax credit for businesses that create an exterior smoking area.

At his York Road haunt, Mr. Curran says the razzing has been good-natured. But a bartender did tell him he would probably quit smoking if a ban were enacted. If that's the likely outcome of a ban, all the more reason for it.

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