Despite three straight years of disappointment, health advocates are pushing harder than ever for a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
The ban's primary opponent, the powerful Restaurant Association of Maryland is -- as usual -- pushing right back.
Legislators in the House and Senate introduced the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006 yesterday, a bill that would make smoking illegal in public spaces across the state.
If Maryland enacted such a law, it could become the 12th state to do so. However, state lawmakers have snuffed the effort in each of the last three years.
Supporters of a statewide ban said at a State House news conference yesterday that waitresses and bartenders deserve the same health protections enjoyed by office workers. Maryland has banned smoking in workplaces since 1995.
"We have to keep Maryland from becoming the ashtray of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic area," said Michaeline Fedder, president of Smoke Free Maryland. "It's now time to accept the truth and pass this legislation. The truth is that secondhand smoke is a health hazard."
Melvin Thompson, the Restaurant Association's vice president of government relations, said without smokers to boost bar tabs, restaurants and taverns will suffer -- particularly the small ones.
"This is not about employees," Thompson said. "This is about special interests trying to use government to interfere with customers' choices."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has strongly supported the restaurateurs' side, his aides have said, asserting that a smoking ban would never happen under his watch.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee -- where the bill has died the last few years. He said yesterday that the timing is probably wrong for the bill, mainly because politicians are reluctant to support controversial legislation in an election year.
However, Middleton, who said he's been lobbied more on this than on any other issue in his career, said he'd see what the House did with the proposed ban before ruling it out. He also said he could be more accepting of a ban if it included an exception for neighborhood bars.
Eleven states ban smoking in bars and restaurants: California, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Montana, Vermont, Washington and New Jersey.
Utah and the District of Columbia are close to passing bans, advocates say.
In Maryland, three counties -- Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot -- have comprehensive smoking restrictions.
Sen. Ida Ruben, the Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said the ban has not hurt her county's economy and would not hurt the state's.
"[The state is] losing business because of smoke, not because we want to eliminate smoke from restaurants," she said. "Those doom-and-gloom predictions are unfounded."
Ruben said she thinks momentum is building for a ban in Maryland -- where 85 percent of adults do not smoke.
"If we can get the bill out on the floor, I do believe we have the votes," she said. "We need to get [the legislation] out of committee."
Meanwhile, senators considered yesterday a bill that would give a tax break to businesses that voluntarily adopt a smoke-free policy.
"My strategy is to give a carrot to somebody rather than punish them," said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, the Baltimore County Democrat sponsoring the tax-break bill. "I'm willing to compromise with people, but no one wants to compromise."
Bonita Pennino, government relations director for the American Cancer Society, told the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday that the carrot-and-stick method does not work when it comes to health.
"We do not give restaurants and bars incentives to keep rodents out of their kitchens," she said. "There's no need to give them incentives for another health issue."