City smoking ban appears headed for renewed debate

June 24, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

A stringent smoking ban proposed for Baltimore that has languished in the City Council for more than a year appears to be headed for renewed debate, possibly reviving one of the city's most contentious issues during a campaign season.

In a letter this week to fellow City Council members, Robert W. Curran, who represents portions of Northeast Baltimore, said he will give the smoking ban a hearing this fall. Curran said he has the votes needed to have the measure approved in committee, the first step in what would be an arduous battle.

The Baltimore proposal, which was modeled after California's law, would prohibit smoking in virtually all restaurants and bars as well other public spaces, such as bowling alleys and city-owned vehicles. Smokers who violate the ordinance would receive a $500 fine.

Smoking bans -- among the most contentious public policy issues cities and states now face -- have been approved in many other large municipalities, including New York, Washington and, as of this month, Philadelphia. Four Maryland counties have approved a ban that covers restaurants and bars.

"It's an issue I feel really deeply about," said Curran, a former smoker. "It's very rare that we in elected office can make an impact on the lives of our citizens."

If the Judiciary and Legislative and Investigations Committee approves the measure, it would represent a significant step forward for the legislation, but many at City Hall doubt the bill can gain enough momentum this year to capture the eight votes it needs for final approval by the full council.

Renewed discussion of Baltimore's legislation comes weeks after Howard County became Maryland's fourth jurisdiction to approve a ban in restaurants and bars. Establishments that allow smoking will have until 2007 to comply with the new measure. Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties also have bans.

Curran's bill, which he introduced in March, has stalled for months. Opponents have argued that the ban would crush small, mom-and-pop taverns along the border of Baltimore County, where no local smoking restrictions exist.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor, said through a spokeswoman yesterday that he prefers a statewide ban to a local one, though he has remained noncommittal on whether he would sign a council ordinance if approved. Many, if not most, council members have sided with O'Malley on the issue.

"I still think it should be statewide," Council President Sheila Dixon said of a ban. "But I think it warrants discussion. ... I think it's finally time to have that open discussion."

Smoking opponents have failed to persuade the General Assembly to enact a statewide smoking ban for four sessions. In other jurisdictions, such as New York, state law followed action by large cities, though many anti-smoking advocates in Maryland believe a statewide law is achievable whether or not a Baltimore ban is approved.

"Its time is definitely here," said Stephen M. Peregoy, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of Maryland. "We certainly hope to see a change this year."

Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has opposed a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who dropped out of the running for governor Thursday, signed the county's ban in 2003 after vetoing an earlier version in 1999.

The City Council last weighed in on the issue in 2004, when it voted 9-6 with three abstentions against a nonbinding resolution to support statewide legislation. A year before that, a majority of council members supported a nearly identical resolution.

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore and who owns a bar with his wife, said he opposes a city smoking ban because of the effect it would have on small businesses.

"Small-business people wouldn't have a shot" at survival under the bill, Reisinger said. "In my bar, the clientele, whether it's middle-aged or older people, they smoke. They come in and they get their beer and they want to be able to smoke a cigarette."

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said the group remains opposed to statewide and local smoking bans. Thompson said the association looked forward to re-entering the city debate this fall, if necessary.

Curran's bill covers a wide range of businesses, including adult-care facilities, hotels and sports arenas. Private clubs and bars that derive 50 percent of their revenue from non-cigarette tobacco sales -- such as cigar bars -- could be exempted.

"Once it happens, it becomes part of the social norm," Curran said. "Why should we Baltimoreans be treated as second-class citizens? There's no real excuse."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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