Anti-smoking activists are pressing for Howard County Executive James N. Robey to veto a bill that would allow smoking to continue at bars and restaurants that already allow it, if that legislation is approved by the County Council next month.
The measure, sponsored by east Columbia Democratic Councilman David A. Rakes, has the support of both Republicans on the five-member council, the restaurant lobby and tobacco wholesalers. It is set for a vote Jan. 3.
Robey, whose bill would eliminate smoking in all county bars and restaurants by 2008, has yet to say whether he would veto the more lenient measure. But he has been urged to do so by leaders of Howard's Smoke Free Coalition and by Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, who backs Robey's approach.
Neither Rakes nor Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon appear concerned about the prospect of a veto.
"As a practical matter, vetoing it gives you exactly what you have today. He's got to make that choice," said Merdon who, along with fellow Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga, backs the more limited smoking restrictions.
"He has that option," Rakes said.
The latest round in the smoking debate followed a hearing Monday night as anti-smoking advocates -- and business interests opposed to strict limits -- waited through a lengthy hearing on a bill to provide a cable television franchise to Verizon, which would provide competition for Comcast in the county.
The new franchise is supported by Dean Smits, the county's cable administrator, and by Martin Stein, chairman of the cable-advisory committee. Comcast and cable-industry representatives argue that a new franchise might give Verizon an unfair advantage.
Arguing in favor of Rakes' smoking legislation was Bruce C. Bereano, a tobacco lobbyist. Bereano said that in 20 years of testifying before the council "this is the first time I'm testifying in favor of a smoking bill."
Rakes' bill is a "balanced, common sense, equitable proposal," said Bereano, who represents tobacco wholesalers.
Rakes and Merdon contend that Robey's bill is too extreme and would punish business owners who spent heavily to comply with Howard's 1996 law, which allows smoking in walled-off areas that also are separately ventilated.
Feaga opposes a ban on grounds it would limit people's freedom of choice about where to eat or drink. Those who support Robey's bill say it is strictly a public health issue that mostly affects people who work in smoke-filled places.
In his comments, Rakes noted that the new Cheesecake Factory restaurant at the Mall in Columbia is a nonsmoking establishment.
"This would limit smoking to the 63 places that allow smoking now," he said, arguing that his bill would help to gradually eliminate smoking in public places.
Later, after more support from Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which has headquarters in Columbia, Rakes said he has taken a lot of criticism for his stand. He said that he "doesn't understand at all" the argument that he is backing business over public health.
"There are people who like eating in these kind of environments," he said of places that allow smoking. "We're not placing business over people. We're trying to resolve this issue. We're trying to come up with a win-win situation."
But Kelly Dolan, a Columbia resident representing the American Lung Association of Maryland, said she is a five-year cancer survivor and cannot patronize places in her home county because of her sensitivity to smoke.
Secondhand smoke is "the deadliest and most pervasive form of indoor pollution," she said. If the government can require people to wear seat belts in vehicles and ban drunken driving, she said, the government can ban smoking.
John O'Hara of Bowie, who heads the Maryland Group Against Smoke Pollution, said secondhand smoke is more damaging because it involves less heat and transmits more radiation and harmful chemicals.
"Your wife is a radiologist, Mr. Merdon," he said, offering a packet of research he urged Merdon to show his spouse.
Michaline Fedder, a Columbia resident representing the Maryland chapter of the American Heart Association, said that while separate ventilation systems might have been thought effective when Howard's law took effect a decade ago, later studies have shown such systems don't work. "This bill is absolutely against the public health."