Smoke signals

February 16, 2006

In Big Sky country, they like their air fresh, especially the indoor variety. That's why it's against the law to light up a cigarette in a Montana restaurant. California, Maine, Delaware and seven other states require restaurants and bars to be smoke-free, too. Ireland and Italy won't let people smoke in enclosed public places. By next year, England won't, either - thanks to this week's vote in parliament. The trend is clear: It's not a matter of if but when smoking will be banned from all Maryland restaurants and bars. The state's two largest counties, Montgomery and Prince George's, have similar bans and a third, the Eastern Shore's Talbot, has one, too.

Whether secondhand smoke is inhaled here or in London, the effects are clear: It's harmful to human health. In the U.S., an estimated 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 heart disease deaths are associated with secondhand smoke, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released this week estimates secondhand smoke costs Maryland nearly $600 million a year in health care bills and lost wages.

Maryland bans smoking in most places of work, but the law exempts certain restaurants and most bars. It's time that loophole was closed. Not because it would spare customers (who, after all, can choose not to patronize a smoke-filled bar), but because restaurant and bar employees ought not be treated as second-class citizens and forced to inhale polluted air.

Voters overwhelmingly support extending the state's smoking ban - by a 2-to-1 ratio in recent polls. But the measure is strongly opposed by the tobacco industry and by influential restaurant and bar owners who are fearful they'll lose business. Studies have shown the economic effects of a ban are not dire. In Montgomery County, for instance, restaurant and bar trade has grown since the ban took effect.

On Monday, Virginia's Senate agreed to outlaw smoking in restaurants and bars, an extraordinary decision in a state where tobacco is so influential. Yet in Maryland, a smoking ban keeps dying in legislative committees. That needs to change this year. Maryland Democrats, who have been eager to demonstrate their differences with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., should seize the issue. Mr. Ehrlich opposes closing this loophole in Maryland's workplace smoking ban; Democrats ought to back it - and then voters can decide whether they favor smoke-filled rooms or politicians who allow them.

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