Smoking ban would hurt, business owners tell council

Health advocates back latest bill

vote set June 5


If a bill for a complete smoking ban is passed by the Howard County Council, Rick Winter predicted his Main Street Ellicott City brew pub will lose business, and his smoking customers will go across the nearby Patapsco River into Baltimore County.

"It's possible you'll solve all of Ellicott City's parking problems because everybody will be in Catonsville," he told the council Monday night.

Landon Davies of Elkridge told the council that three of his grandparents smoked and died of lung cancer.

"I'm just a citizen looking for a place to enjoy a happy hour without smoke."

Such are the strong feelings the smoking issue evoked -- even for a third public hearing on the fourth smoking ban bill since November. The current version, like the first, is sponsored by County Executive James N. Robey, a Democrat, and County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

Under their bill, the subject of the council's hearing, a smoking ban would take effect in June 2007. A vote is scheduled for June 5, and most observers expect the bill to pass because of a recent change in council membership.

If it is approved, Howard County would become the first Baltimore-area jurisdiction to go no-smoking, joining Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties and the District of Columbia. A bill is pending in Baltimore, but Mayor Martin O'Malley has resisted the idea.

Business owners say the ban is not needed and a one-year phase-in will put some small business that depend on a smoking-drinking crowd in danger of failing.

Winter, who said he spent $300,000 a decade ago to equip his pub with a separate, independently ventilated basement bar for smokers to comply with the county's decade-old restaurant smoking law, blames the new push on "personal political motivations. Extremists are in control."

Health advocates argue that secondhand smoke is a toxic substance that should be removed from the public arena as are defective tires or prescription drugs with harmful side effects. They want the ban to take effect in 60 days, as other council legislation does.

"I liken this to what our president called our oil addiction. People need a little push to deal with this [smoking] addiction," said Regina Holt of Elkridge.

Others felt differently.

"It takes much more than a year to earn a client base and establish an identity," said Howard County Restaurant Association President Joe Barbera, who owns a no-smoking restaurant in Columbia.

He said a smoking ban would hurt small businesses such as the Phoenix Emporium on Main Street in Ellicott City. Such establishments fill a small niche by catering to smokers, even though 90 percent of Howard residents do not smoke.

"A short phase-in period means a very quick death for those places," Barbera said, arguing for a provision that would allow bars to apply for a longer delay.

Larry Schoen of Columbia told the council that he designs ventilation systems for a living. He said there is no way to keep secondhand smoke away from people, even in a physically separate smoking section.

"If you want to save lives, you get rid of the contaminants in the room," he said.

Kelly Dolan Kesler of the American Lung Association of Maryland said she took time from her honeymoon to testify a third time.

"It's time," said Kesler, who said she is a cancer survivor. "You know it's time. I know you want to protect us." Council members refrained, except for one time, from asking questions of the 18 speakers. Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, thanked several speakers for returning time after time to offer their thoughts. Ulman and Merdon are running for county executive, and Robey is running for state Senate.

Merdon and west county Councilman Charles C. Feaga supported one smoking-ban bill that passed the council, 3-2. But Robey vetoed it because it carried a four-year delay in enforcement. Now, several speakers on both sides said they hope the issue will be settled once and for all June 5.

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