Diving into a controversy that has played out in dozens of cities across the country, the Baltimore City Council will conduct its first hearing today on a proposed smoking ban - a preliminary move that is sure to ignite a debate among smokers, non-smokers and restaurateurs.
Similar bans on smoking in restaurants and bars have been approved in New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia - as well as four Maryland counties - but Baltimore has largely avoided the issue. The hearing, which will take place at City Hall, will be the first time the 15-member council has officially discussed a local smoking ban - and it comes more than a year after the proposal was introduced.
"There is no excuse now not to move forward," said Councilman Robert W. Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore and has been the leading champion of the ban. "There's no reason that Baltimore has to be the last large city, population-wise, not to protect its hospitality workers."
As proposed, Baltimore's ban would prohibit smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Cigar bars, outdoor seating areas of restaurants, private clubs and certain tobacco shops would be exempt from the ban, if the owners apply for a waiver. Smokers caught breaking the law would be fined $250 and business owners would face a $500 penalty for each smoker they allow to light up.
Advocates, led by health organizations such as the American Cancer Society, have argued that the bans are needed to protect the health of waiters, bartenders and other restaurant employees who are forced to breathe secondhand smoke - even though other types of workers are not.
Opponents counter that government should not interfere with the personal choice of smokers and non-smoking patrons who opt to visit smoky bars. Led by the state's restaurant association, those fighting the legislation argue that the ban will be detrimental to business, especially mom-and-pop taverns near the border of Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, which do not have the prohibition.
"Basically, you're gambling with my livelihood by telling me it's better for me and my business to do this," said Shawn Casserly, owner of Kibby's Restaurant and Lounge on Wilkens Avenue near the Baltimore County line. "Everybody on the smoking side has told me that if they ban smoking, I'm not coming to the bar anymore."
Bob Godin, a bartender at the Mount Royal Tavern in Mid-Town Belvedere, was more blunt: "It won't be good. This place has been open so long and we've got a lot of regulars who smoke."
Tonight's hearing, conducted by the council's judiciary and legislative investigations committee, is in many ways more of a symbolic victory for smoking ban supporters than a practical one. Curran acknowledges that he does not yet have the eight votes needed to pass the measure in the council. It is unlikely, he said, that any vote will take place before next year.
And, even if it is approved, it is not clear when the ban would take effect.
Introduced in March 2005, the proposal has been caught up in the larger political fray of this year's gubernatorial race. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, has said he opposes a city ban but could support a statewide prohibition. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican running for re-election, has publicly stated his opposition to a statewide ban.
Holding a vote next year, when Baltimore's mayoral race will be in full swing, could present new uncertainty for the legislation. Several members of the City Council, including President Sheila Dixon, are expected to run for mayor in 2007, and few city issues are as polarizing, or politically dangerous, as a smoking ban. If O'Malley wins his gubernatorial election, Dixon - who by charter fills out the remainder of his term - would have to decide whether to sign the ban if the council approved it.
But supporters of the legislation say that if Baltimore can approve a smoking ban, it might prompt the General Assembly to action - eliminating the concern that smokers will hop over the city line. The Democratic-controlled legislature has killed a proposed statewide smoking ban four years in a row. New York, California and Massachusetts all approved statewide bans after their largest cities passed local restrictions, advocates say.
"Passing a statewide ban would just make a huge impact," said Johanna Neumann, a policy advocate with Maryland PIRG, a group that has lobbied heavily on the issue. "If Baltimore City goes, I think we will have reached the tipping point."
Neither Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore City Democrat, nor Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, returned phone calls seeking comment. Both chair the committees in their respective chambers where the smoking legislation has died.