Howard smoking ban may get vote

Some restaurant owners say it could put them out of business

'There's going to be a tipping point'

Supporters hope the action would help spur a statewide ban

September 02, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive James N. Robey is preparing legislation that would ban smoking in all the county's restaurants and bars, following the example of Montgomery and Talbot counties - and, supporters hope, strengthening momentum for a statewide ban.

Similar bills are awaiting council action in Baltimore, in the District of Columbia and in Prince George's County. Seven states and 182 local governments nationwide ban smoking in restaurants and bars.

"There's going to be a tipping point where it's going to make sense statewide. We've been frustrated for a couple years," said Kari Appler, director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. Her group will seek a statewide smoking ban again when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, she said.

Robey - who said he would prefer a statewide ban - could submit a bill to the County Council as early as October. He is weighing the benefit to public health against claims that local businesses would be hurt, while calculating his chances of success on the often unpredictable five-member council. A decision is several weeks away.

"I've been interested in it for seven years. There are a lot of people urging me to do it," he said. "It's not something I take lightly. I'm very concerned about the health of people, but on the other hand I'm very concerned about the health of the business community."

However, restaurant groups oppose smoking prohibitions.

"We oppose it because of the negative financial impact that smoking bans place on smaller bars and restaurants," said Melvin Thompson, vice president for government relations for the Maryland Restaurant Association. State law restricts smoking in public buildings but lets local governments set tighter limits. Private venues can also set their own rules. Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, for example, prohibits smoking under the pavilion's roof but not in lawn seating.

Howard County's current smoking law, approved in 1993, survived two vetoes by former Executive Charles I. Ecker and took effect in 1996 - but not until a loophole was opened that allowed smoking in bars.

The law requires separate smoking and nonsmoking areas in restaurants.

Anti-smoking advocates say the law has not worked, that the number of businesses that allow smoking has grown over the years, and that many places do a poor job of ventilating smoking areas.

Advocates of the smoking ban argue that secondhand smoke endangers employees, who have little choice about breathing in the fumes.

Health advocates applauded Robey's consideration of a bill and point to 2002 campaign pledges signed by the council's three Democrats in which they promised to support or sponsor such a bill.

"Our job is to put the public health above all. If Ireland and Italy can go smoke-free, and New York and California, I'm sure Howard County, Maryland, will be just fine," said Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he would favor a phased-in provision that would give businesses that have invested heavily in separate smoking areas time to adjust.

Ellicott City Republican Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a candidate for county executive, said he would take no position on the issue until he sees a bill, and fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga is vehemently against it.

Although Robey's bill still is being drafted, it would, like the Prince George's County version, exempt private clubs and tobacco stores.

But local business owners criticized any further restrictions on smoking.

"It would probably put us out of business," said George Strott, general manager of Michael's Pub, a popular restaurant in Kings Contrivance Village Center with a separate smoking bar that features live entertainment on weekends.

Strott said the smoking bar makes the pub profitable. Smokers stay longer, he said, and buy more food and drinks than nonsmokers do.

Joe Barbera, president of the Howard County Restaurant Owners Association, said his group strongly opposes a ban.

"People have made a major investment to keep that [smoking] section away from the rest of the restaurant," he said. Barbera owns Aida's Bistro in Columbia, which does not allow smoking, but he said that customers, employees and business owners should have the right to make that choice.

Jordan Naftal, past president of the association and owner of a steak house on Ellicott City's Main Street, said a ban would hurt him, too. Naftal said his restaurant, two blocks from the Patapsco River boundary with Baltimore County, might lose 20 percent of its trade.

"They can go right over the bridge," Naftal said about the smoking customers who come to his cigar lounge and separate, smoke-free restaurant.

The move could be politically risky for Robey, a Democrat considering a possible state Senate bid when he is forced from the executive's job next year by term limits. Incurring the anger of the county's growing pool of restaurant and tavern operators could hurt him at the polls.

"It's not a political decision," he said. "It's a public-good decision, a health decision."

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