Outlook is hazy for smoking bans

Candidates wary of further restrictions

November 20, 2005|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore's incoming health commissioner supports a City Council bill that would ban smoking in bars and restaurants, but that stance puts him at odds with his boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"If I can't make progress on tobacco, it will be very disappointing," says Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, who views smoking as a major public health threat.

O'Malley's position has dismayed smoking opponents. He says he's not a "big proponent" of local smoking bans because they could spur businesses to move to jurisdictions without the restrictions. Meanwhile, he supports the existing state law that allows smoking in bars and designated areas of restaurants and he declines to say whether he'll sign the council bill if it passes. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," says O'Malley.

For three years in a row, smoking opponents have failed to persuade the General Assembly to enact a smoking ban. And considering the positions taken by O'Malley, a Democrat, and the other gubernatorial candidates, they are likely to get snuffed again in the upcoming session.

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants will never pass under his administration. He supports the restrictions in place.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democratic candidate for governor, supports local bans but says he wouldn't throw his weight behind a statewide prohibition until more cities and counties impose their own restrictions.

In one breath, O'Malley says that a smoking ban would be best done at the state level, and in another he says that if he's elected governor he'd have to study the legislation before taking a position on it.

Donald F. Norris, a political analyst, says the smoking ban is not likely to become a make-or-break issue in the gubernatorial race, making it ripe for political doublespeak.

Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says it appears that O'Malley wants to "have it both ways." But it's not an issue O'Malley is likely to "lose a whole lot of votes over," he adds.

As for Duncan's stance, Norris says, "I would think there is very little to lose politically in supporting a smoking ban except possibly campaign contributions" from restaurant and bar owners who oppose such measures.

Tomorrow, the Howard County Council will hold a public hearing on proposals to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Such measures exist in Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties. And Baltimore and Washington have smoking ban legislation pending before their councils.

The smoking ban being considered by Baltimore's City Council was drafted by O'Malley's uncle by marriage, Councilman Robert W. Curran. Curran says the bill will not move from a council committee until he can guarantee majority support. He says that he has not spoken to the mayor about the issue, but that he believes O'Malley would approve the measure if the council did.

"My job is to get it through the council," he says. "Once I do that, I believe the mayor will sign it."

Even if Curran can get enough votes to pass the bill, it is unlikely that he would be able to muster enough support to override a possible mayoral veto, because council President Sheila Dixon says she shares O'Malley's position.

And, O'Malley's position mirrors that of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

"Any bar/restaurant owner can voluntarily make their establishment smoke free if they so choose," wrote Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the association, in a Nov. 2 letter to the City Council. "The bottom line here is that business owners are free to make those choices based on what their customers prefer. This is simply the free-enterprise system at work."

Thompson says he was pleased to learn of the mayor's position, which he said reflects the majority of the City Council.

Kari Appler, director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, says O'Malley should testify to the General Assembly in support of a statewide ban if he indeed believes one is warranted. Appler says there is no proof to support O'Malley's argument that businesses flee cities with bans.

"It has not negatively impacted business at all," Appler says.

That's similar to the message that Duncan has been delivering, except he says business in Montgomery's restaurants and bars has improved slightly despite the ban.

Duncan originally opposed a 1999 smoking ban proposed by his county's council for the same reservations O'Malley is expressing. But he supported the measure in 2003.

"I was very worried that it would be a huge hit to our restaurant industry," Duncan says. "As time went on, I looked at other places - New York City, Delaware, California - and I saw that there was no real economic impact. If anything, there was a positive one."

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