Dixon `leaning' to smoking ban

Council president rejects opponents' economic claims

hundreds crowd public hearing

October 26, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun Reporter

In the strongest words she has used on the issue, Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday she could support a local ban on smoking in restaurants and bars -- staking out a position that might become significant if she becomes mayor next year.

Dixon, a longtime advocate on health issues, stopped short of vowing to vote for a ban. But she said that she does not believe smoking prohibitions affect the economy -- a chief claim made by opponents -- and suggested legislation could be crafted to appease the diametrically opposed advocates on both sides of the issue.

"I am leaning toward supporting it," Dixon said. "There's enough information to really clarify that it hasn't had an economic impact on other cities and that it's time that we look to doing this."

Dixon, who would serve out the remainder of Mayor Martin O'Malley's term if he is elected governor -- and who would have to decide whether to sign a ban -- made her comments on the same day the City Council held its first hearing on the issue. About 200 people crammed the council chambers -- an unusually large turnout that underscored the deep divisions over the proposal.

Based on applause, and an invitation at one point to stand, the newly refurbished chamber -- where brass spittoons still recall bygone tobacco-chewing council members -- was overwhelmingly filled with restaurant owners and others against the ban.

"A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work well for everyone," said Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "Everyone agrees that fewer people should smoke. All we're saying is, don't try to accomplish that goal on the backs of our businesses."

Baltimore's proposed 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, if the owners apply for a waiver.

Fourteen of the nation's 20 largest cities, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have imposed smoking restrictions on restaurateurs or are covered under a statewide ban. Six of those 20 cities, including Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C., have not approved a ban.

Despite growing popularity among city and state officials, local smoking bans are vehemently opposed by restaurants and bar owners, as well as some nonsmokers who believe the government should not interfere with an issue that for decades has been directed by personal choice.

Dozens of advocates on both sides spoke last night in a hearing that lasted more than five hours. Doctors and health groups spoke in favor of the ban, including one doctor who propped up a skeleton in a chair near where he was sitting. Those who opposed the ban were mainly restaurant and bar owners, though a number of waiters also spoke against the measure.

"There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke," Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner, told the council's judiciary and legislative investigations committee. "Secondhand smoke in restaurants and bars poses a very serious health risk."

Sharfstein supports the ban, but his boss, O'Malley, favors a statewide ban.

Baltimore's smoking-ban legislation was introduced early last year by City Councilman Robert W. Curran, a former smoker who represents a large slice of the city's northeast. The proposal has stalled for months. A vote is not expected until early next year.

The city bill comes after committees in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly voted against a statewide ban for four years. As late as this year, Dixon endorsed O'Malley's position that a statewide ban is better because it would protect city bars and restaurants that are near county lines. If a ban is imposed in the city, the theory goes, smokers would drive to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties to dine.

Dixon said she still prefers a statewide ban to a local one but now says the city must "strongly look at the issue" to "determine what's going to be best for Baltimore."

"It's just a shame that we have to do this city by city and county by county, versus a statewide ban," said Dixon. "We've got to make a hard decision on whether Baltimore City is going to be next in line with that happening."

It is not entirely clear what sort of legislation will emerge from the council. Cities with bans have all crafted legislation slightly differently, with some offering broad exemptions and others few, if any. The current council proposal will likely change several times before it comes to a vote.

Debate over the specifics of the bill began yesterday. The council is weighing one amendment that would extend the date the ban would take effect and another that would eliminate an annual fee that bars and restaurants would be required to pay to receive a waiver.

Curran readily acknowledged that he does not have the eight votes required to have the measure approved in the council -- even with Dixon's support. It is unclear whether Dixon would actively lobby in favor of the bill if she ultimately decides to support it, but Curran said he hopes she will.

As the hearing continued into the night, Charlene Cotsoradis stepped outside City Hall for a little air. A few feet away from the door, she lit up a cigarette and talked about the testimony at the hearing. The Cotsoradis family has owned Garden Bar on Erdman Avenue for years.

"I think they're already stuck on the ban. I think they already have their minds made up," she said of the council. "It'll just knock out the individual bar owners."


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.