Council majority unites on smoking

3-member coalition favors allowing continuation in existing bars, restaurants, but banning it in new ones


A new majority coalition of three Howard County Council members favors a law that would allow smoking to continue in restaurants and bars that now allow it until those businesses change hands but prohibit smoking in new establishments.

The council's two Republicans and east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes appear united on the five-member council in feeling that a total ban is unfair to business owners and smokers.

It is the latest twist in the council's political maneuvering over the smoking issue, which prompted two executive vetoes a dozen years ago, before the current law allowing smoking in separately ventilated areas was approved.

This month, County Executive James N. Robey, in what was widely viewed as an uphill fight, submitted a bill that would ban smoking in all public places, although enforcement would be delayed two years for bars and restaurants that now allow it.

Opponents of smoking were hoping a Howard bill would add momentum to nonsmoking efforts in the state. Prince George's County approved a total smoking ban this month, matching a two-year-old law in Montgomery County. Similar measures are under consideration in Washington and Baltimore.

But Robey's bill faces strong opposition from the council's two Republicans and Rakes, who as a candidate in 2002 pledged to support a no-smoking ban.

Howard County Smoke Free Coalition and bill co-sponsor Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, oppose the Rakes idea of a permanent exception for establishments that allow smoking. If Robey's bill fails, they would prefer to wait until after next year's elections and try again to gain a total ban.

Rakes views his bill as a reasonable compromise.

"I don't think anyone could disagree: Smoking is a terrible, terrible, terrible habit, and we've got to stamp it out," Rakes said yesterday at a county Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum at the Turf Valley country club. "But people are going to continue to smoke and they're going to smoke somewhere. Why cripple the business community? It's a personal matter."

Rakes said his proposal to "grandfather" the 69 existing smoking places under a new law prohibiting smoking elsewhere in public places is being reviewed by the county's law office and could be introduced in December.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican and a candidate for county executive next year, criticized smoking in restaurants at yesterday's forum, then supported Rakes' concept.

"Allowing smoking in a restaurant is a bad business decision," Merdon said. "But we allow choice. The government shouldn't come and tell you, `We want to tell you how to run your business.'"

He said that young people with families will not patronize restaurants with smoking, and that business revenues will decline for such places, but he added, "I respect the right of a business owner to make that decision."

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a west county Republican, was in the audience but did not speak. Asked later about Rakes' concept, he said, "I think it's a fair compromise. I might even co-sponsor it."

Neither Rakes nor Merdon brought up the point most often used to criticize a total ban -- that business owners spent heavily to build separately ventilated smoking and nonsmoking areas to comply with the current law, which took effect in 1996.

The Howard County Restaurant Association opposes any change in the county's smoking law. The chamber opposes anything less than a statewide ban.

The situation will take weeks to play out. Robey's bill will get a public hearing Monday night, and a vote is expected Dec. 5, the earliest that Rakes' bill could be introduced.

If the coalition rejects Robey's bill and in January approves Rakes' concept, Robey then would have to decide whether to veto it. Former County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, vetoed two bills restricting smoking in restaurants in 1993, but his second veto was overturned. He then advocated a total smoking ban rather than the current system, but no bill was voted on.

Robey has refused to say if he would use the veto, though he opposes any grandfathering provision, he said yesterday.

"I haven't seen the bill David's talking about, but the concept of grandfathering people in does not do what I want to do. I was more than generous ," he said, in providing a two-year delay in enforcement on the 69 county establishments that allow smoking.

At yesterday's forum, Robey was asked by Eric Isselhardt, headmaster of the private Norbel School in Elkridge, about a recent study claiming that secondhand smoke isn't really harmful.

"I've learned that for every report that says X, there's one that says Y or Z," Robey said. I'm convinced that studies I have seen justify what we're trying to do. I've seen too many friends and relatives die too young."

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