Howard clears the air

June 08, 2006

Years from now, people will look back on the Howard County Council's decision Monday to ban smoking in all restaurants and bars and wonder: What was all the fuss about? Certainly that's how most people now regard Maryland's statewide ban on smoking in the workplace. Can you imagine the person in the next cube lighting up a stogie and blowing smoke rings across the office? It might have happened not so many years ago. Times have changed - bars and restaurants have been exempted from the smoking ban for too long.

Nevertheless, Howard County's hotly debated decision is significant. It now becomes the fifth county in the state to pass laws to protect food service workers from secondhand smoke. Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties have banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Officials in Charles County in Southern Maryland recently approved a moratorium on smoking in restaurants. Altogether, roughly two in five Maryland residents live in jurisdictions that restrict smoking above and beyond the state standard. It's time the rest of Maryland caught up.

The reasons are obvious. Secondhand smoke kills - nationwide, about 3,000 lung cancer deaths and 35,000 to 62,000 heart disease deaths each year, according to federal government reports. It can linger in the air for hours after a cigarette is extinguished. And bars and restaurants where smoking is allowed have been found to be even more hazardous than homes where people smoke regularly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60 percent of nonsmokers show medical evidence of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Fourteen states have chosen to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, and at least three more have similar measures pending as ballot initiatives this fall. Restaurant and bar workers deserve the same protections Maryland gives office and retail workers. At least restaurant customers can choose to sit in a no-smoking area or not patronize smoke-filled rooms. Bartenders and waitresses don't have that luxury; they may be stuck breathing secondhand smoke all day long.

Last year, an effort to close the restaurant and bar loophole died on a tied vote in a Maryland House of Delegates committee. It was killed under similar circumstances in a state Senate committee the year before. It's time the state's elected leaders stopped playing games and backed this important public health initiative.

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