Tobacco foes see hope in Howard

Council proposal to restrict smoking may add a spark for statewide ban


Nearly three months after it was snuffed out, a push to ban smoking in all Howard County bars and restaurants has reignited - and with it the hopes of health advocates seeking to eliminate smoking in public places throughout Maryland.

The latest Howard proposal, which anti-smoking forces say would be the state's toughest, was submitted Monday night and would ban smoking in bars and restaurants by July 1, 2008.

The bill is virtually identical to one proposed last year by County Executive James N. Robey that was rejected by the council. Supporters hope a new Democratic council appointee, to take office this month, will give the measure the votes it needs to pass.

The bill also would ban smoking at outdoor sports and entertainment events and within 15 feet of building entrances or windows.

Robey's previous measure was defeated by a Republican-led council coalition, which passed its own bill that would have delayed enforcement for four years, prompting him to veto it.

Though a statewide anti-smoking bill failed in the General Assembly this year for the fourth consecutive time, "localities moving forward helps build state momentum," said Kari Appler, director of Smoke Free Maryland. Talbot, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have approved smoking bans, and Charles County is considering a restaurant-only smoking ban.

Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran said that if the latest Howard County proposal is approved, it could help him promote a ban in the city.

"Obviously, the more [jurisdictions] aboard would show that the critical mass is there. If Howard comes aboard, it would really help the local city effort," said Curran, who has introduced a similar measure. "This is great news for us."

But the Restaurant Association of Maryland's vice president, Melvin Thompson, says Howard's modest existing restrictions are adequate.

"The proponents are simply using this to help their efforts in passing a statewide ban," he said. "It's unfortunate that Howard County and its citizens are being used as pawns in this effort."

The revival of the issue in Howard took supporters and opponents by surprise Monday night, when council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon introduced virtually the same bill he helped kill in January.

Merdon, a Republican candidate for county executive, said he hasn't changed his mind but knew the issue would come up again anyway and wanted to deal with it early to prevent the debate from interfering with more important subjects such as the budget.

But his decision to introduce the bill came just days after the resignation of maverick Democrat David A. Rakes, who had given Republicans their crucial third vote on the council to water down the bill vetoed this year.

Democrats are expected to fill that seat with a party loyalist, making it even more likely that Robey would once again propose his own smoking ban.

That left some to speculate that Merdon wanted to dispense with the issue before the year's political campaigns heat up in September - a calculation that Merdon rejects.

"My decisions are not made by political motive. I don't put my finger to the wind. I make my decisions on what's right," he said. "If this is a public health issue, they shouldn't care about the motivation or the timing."

Others were more skeptical.

"It sounds like he wants to have it both ways. He wants to be able to say at the end that he introduced the bill" and keep the issue away from the fall elections, said Glenn E. Schneider, legislative chairman of the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition.

But Schneider is prepared to take Merdon's action and run with it by pushing to eliminate the measure's two-year enforcement delay for places that now allow smoking.

"People should not have to wait for important public health protections. We believe that the time for this bill has come," Schneider said.

If Merdon's motive is political, Robey said it was not a smart one, arguing strong public support for a smoking ban.

"I think he's made a mistake, a horrible mistake, politically," Robey said.

Howard law allows smoking in bars, and in restaurants that have physically separate smoking sections equipped with their own ventilation systems.

Business owners say 83 percent of county restaurants smoke-free, and they say a total ban would hurt business in small, locally owned places that depend on that income. Their two Republican backers on the five-member council, Merdon and Western county representative Charles C. Feaga, oppose tighter restrictions as an imposition on patrons' freedom of choice.

On the Democratic side, west Columbia Councilman Ken Ulman, a candidate for the executive's job who co-sponsored Robey's original bill, and Councilman Guy Guzzone agree with Appler that the real issue is public health, not economics.

"It's pleasantly shocking that he would change his mind," said Guzzone of Merdon's move.

The front-runner for the appointment to Rakes' seat, Calvin Ball, 30, is solidly anti-smoking, though he wouldn't comment on the specific bill.

"Generally, I think we need to fight for the safety of the community," he said, adding that includes eliminate of secondhand smoke in restaurants and bars.

Smoking plan

A bill to further restrict smoking in Howard County would be the toughest in the state, anti-smoking forces say. Effective July 1, 2008, it would ban smoking:

In all bars and restaurants.

At day care and health centers.

In shared work areas.

At outdoor seating or viewing areas used by the public for concerts, movies, lectures, dramas, or bleachers at ball fields.

Within 15 feet of any main public entrance, exit, air intake, vent or open window to any public place.

In government vehicles.

Exceptions to the law include:

Private events such as weddings, banquets and other invitation-only events.

Private clubs.

Some hotel rooms.

Retail tobacco stores.

Overnight truck stops (but not their restaurants).

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