Howard renews smoking debate

Testimony heard on 2nd, less-restrictive bill


What could be the final phase of Howard County's latest fight over smoking in bars and restaurants began last night as the County Council heard testimony on a bill that would allow smoking where it is permitted now but ban it from all new establishments.

Anti-smoking and health advocates and County Executive James N. Robey oppose the bill, though it appears to have majority support. It was sponsored by east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes and has won endorsements from the five-member body's two Republicans, Chairman Christopher J. Merdon and Charles C. Feaga.

The remaining two Democrats, Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman, favor an earlier bill sponsored by Robey and Ulman that would ban all smoking in all public places.

Rakes' bill "will not protect one single worker in the near future. It will have very little effect, if any, over the next several years. Everyone here knows this," said Mark Breaux, president of the Smoke Free Howard County Tobacco Coalition.

"A problem of secondhand smoke in bars and restaurants deserves a better solution than reinforcing the status quo, which is what this bill does," said James Browning of the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Earl V. Wilkinson, president of the Howard County Medical Society, also testified against Rakes' bill. "Who will accept liability for damages from secondhand smoke?" he asked.

Their views were opposite those representing business interests.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, testified in support of the Rakes bill, arguing that 83 percent of Howard County restaurants are smoke-free. "As the number of smoking adults continues to decline, this issue will eventually take care of itself," Thompson said. "We believe that this approach is fairer and more balanced than a comprehensive smoking ban."

Tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano called Rakes' bill "a balanced, common-sense, equitable proposal." He said Robey's proposed smoking ban would amount to a "taking without compensation." Bereano noted that in 20 years of testifying before the County Council, "this is the first time I'm testifying in favor of a smoking bill."

Merdon and Rakes oppose Robey's bill as too extreme - especially for business owners who spent money to comply with Howard's 1996 law that allows smoking in physically separate areas with separate ventilation systems.

A vote on Robey's bill was postponed this month when the measure was tabled. The issue should be settled by a vote Jan. 3 on Rakes' bill.

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