Hurry up, please

July 02, 2006

Come next January, Baltimore will be the only large city between Washington and Boston to allow smoking in bars. Even now, you could hit every saloon between Seaford, Del., and Newburyport, Mass., and there'd be no chance that smoke gets in your eyes. In fact, if you could hold your breath on the way through Denton, in Caroline County, and through Portsmouth and its outlying towns in New Hampshire, you could make your smoke-free odyssey all the way from Tilghman Island to Campbellton, way up in Restigouche County, New Brunswick. But beware of Baltimore.

Last week, the U.S. surgeon general issued a very heavy report with a very simple theme: Secondhand smoke makes you ill, no matter what level you're talking about. It's bad for the people who go to bars where smoking is allowed, and it's especially bad for the people who work in those bars. It's not simply a matter of choice, because heart disease, asthma and lung cancer are all exceptionally expensive diseases to treat, and that expense is shared, even though indirectly, by everyone. Sudden infant death syndrome - that's another consequence triggered by secondhand smoke, the surgeon general said.

Baltimore's growing isolation as a smoke-'em-if-you-got-'em outpost (that old line is beginning to sound pretty moth-eaten, isn't it?) is starting to get disgraceful. If Columbus, Ohio, and Laramie, Wyo., and Starkville, Miss., can outlaw smoking in bars, it can't be that hard.

City Council members Kenneth N. Harris Sr. and Robert W. Curran say they'll try again this fall to get a city ban enacted. If they fail, yet again, it will be a blot on the image of Baltimore - a nicotine stain on a city that used to care about public health.

Bar owners worry that they'll lose business, though it's worth noting that the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association reversed itself last week and endorsed a ban in restaurants and bars. Certainly, a statewide prohibition in Maryland would be more equitable than the patchwork county-by-county efforts that now forbid smoking in Savage but not Odenton, in Damascus but not Mount Airy. If Utah and 13 other states can do it, surely Maryland can. If Ireland and Italy and Bhutan and Singapore can do it - without economic damage to their pubs and bars and cafes - it's time for the Old Line State to catch up. But the General Assembly has gone home and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has promised that if the legislature ever did pass a bill against smoking in bars, he'd veto it.

So Baltimore is going to have to fix itself. Then maybe Baltimore County will follow. And Anne Arundel. And Harford and Carroll and so on until the barroom air is clear from Ocean City all the way to Oakland. It's a simple thing, really. And it will get results.

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