Proposed ban on smoking has both sides all fired up


Sonoma's Bar and Grille is a smoker's haven in Columbia, but Lindsay Moss, sitting with a friend on a recent night, wished it weren't so.

"I smoke - and I can't wait for them to go nonsmoking," said Moss, 27, a self-described "social smoker" in Howard County, which now is debating whether to ban smoking in all bars and restaurants. "I hate how I smell when I get home. When I go to places that don't have smoking, I don't smoke."

Her friend Heather Vaughn, also of Columbia - an admitted pack-a-day addict - takes the more moderate view shared by several other patrons.

"I am for separate ventilation systems," said Vaughn, 27, who is content with Howard's existing law mandating separate, independently ventilated areas for smokers in restaurants. "If a place was completely nonsmoking, I wouldn't go."

A dozen years after it became an East Coast leader in anti-smoking legislation, Howard once again is wading into the fight over smoking in public places, a move pushed by anti-smoking activists but strongly opposed by restaurant and bar owners and many Republicans.

County Executive James N. Robey's proposal - to be formally introduced Monday - would ban smoking in all bars and restaurants and at outdoor athletic and entertainment events. So far, he has two likely supporters on the five-member County Council for the vote set to take place Dec. 5.

With Montgomery County now smoke-free, Prince George's County likely to follow and similar bills pending in Baltimore and in Washington, D.C., health advocates are pushing hard in Howard, hoping they can move Maryland toward a statewide ban, one jurisdiction at a time.

"This is becoming the mainstream thing, and all the economics show it doesn't hurt business," said Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of the Smoke Free Howard County Tobacco Coalition. "It's almost embarrassing that so-called health-conscious Howard County has not taken this step."

But owners of prominent restaurants such as Clyde's, a nonsmoking fixture on Columbia's lakefront, and Jordan's Steakhouse on Ellicott City's Main Street, oppose Robey's bill.

Referring to a survey showing that 83 percent of the county's bars and restaurants already are smoke-free, industry representatives argue that the current system works well and that to change it would send smokers to nearby places in Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties.

"We think it's a solution in search of a problem," said Jordan Naftal, owner of Jordan's, who said his customers "will opt not to go out" if they can't take smoke breaks in his smoking lounge. The high-end steak restaurant draws people who spend up to four hours at dinner, he said.

"Regulars come in several days a week for appetizers and wine. If they can't smoke there, it takes away from their experience. They're going to stay home," he said. Patrons of other smoking bars on Main Street can go across the Patapsco River bridge to Baltimore County, he added.

Others, like Greg Troemely, co-owner of Sonoma's in Columbia's Owen Brown Village Center, said he wouldn't mind a statewide smoking ban - something Robey has said he, too, would prefer.

But Schneider and other health advocates say the number of places that allow smoking is growing and that separate smoking rooms often aren't well-ventilated or sealed off from nonsmoking areas. In addition, the current system doesn't protect employees from secondhand smoke, they say.

Sonoma's, a big-screen TV hangout that drew Moss, Vaughn and a crowd of football fans for Monday night's nationally televised game between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, serves as an example of Schneider's complaints.

The nonsmoking section is separated from the bar by a series of removable glass and wood doors. But doors at either end of the wall were open Monday night to allow wait staff easy access, and the smell of smoke permeated the restaurant.

"You still come home smelling like smoke," said Rebecca Nichols, 19, of Annapolis, who was seated in Sonoma's nonsmoking section with a group of friends. "You get used to it," she said.

Kevin Ryan, 21, of Columbia, her table-mate, said smoking should be allowed in bars. But Chris Thacker, 28, seated at the end of their table, disagreed. He loves going to New York City now that a smoking ban is in effect there.

"It's great," he said, adding that when he patronizes smoking bars, "I have to take a shower and wash my clothes. My eyes are all red."

Tad Cleaves, 43, of Harford County said he doesn't smoke, but he sat in the smoking section nursing a beer, halfway home from his job in Silver Spring. The smoke bothers him "to a point, but I can choose to leave," he said, adding that a total ban is "a bit extreme."

At Hard Times Cafe, a restaurant a few miles from Sonoma's, server Jane Wilson, a smoker, voiced a more vehement view.

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