Clearing the air in Howard

November 06, 2005

Smoking is banned from most workplaces in this country. Why? Because secondhand smoke contains 50 known carcinogens and raises the risk of lung cancer and heart disease in people who don't smoke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 38,000 people in the U.S. die each year because of exposure to secondhand smoke. Unfortunately, many states, Maryland included, don't prohibit smoking in all restaurants and bars. It's a costly - and potentially deadly - loophole.

But that's changing. Tomorrow, Howard County Executive James N. Robey is expected to formally introduce legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants as well as at outdoor athletic and entertainment events. If successful, Howard will join Montgomery and Talbot counties, where similar smoking bans have proved to be effective. Two County Council members have already promised support for the proposal, and a third, David A. Rakes, pledged to vote for a ban when he ran for office in 2002.

It's a welcome trend. In recent years, eight states (including neighboring Delaware) have endorsed smoke-free bars and restaurants, as have at least 190 localities. Howard County has a history with the issue, too. Under legislation passed 12 years ago, restaurants that choose to permit smoking must have a smoking area with separate ventilation. That was a progressive decision for its day, but the requirement failed to address the health of the county's restaurant and bar workers.

Protecting employee health is a prime reason why Howard County - and the rest of Maryland - needs to ban smoking in all businesses. Customers can choose not to patronize bars that permit smoking. Employees can't. And they have to breathe the toxic fumes day after day. Certainly, we wouldn't allow companies to knowingly expose workers to harmful chemicals. Tobacco shouldn't be treated differently.

Research shows smoking bans are effective and the public supports them. A recent study in Ireland found a similar nationwide smoking ban has significantly improved the health of bar staff. Mr. Robey's proposal wouldn't go into effect for two years, but we see no reason for such a delay. Smoking bans don't hurt the restaurant industry, but secondhand smoke does - by harming employees and driving up health care costs. Might a ban inconvenience some customers? That could prove a secondhand benefit: The more lives spared, the better.

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