Panel backs ban on smoking

Public places in city targeted

O'Malley may have final say

November 21, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

A Baltimore City Council committee approved a measure yesterday to ban smoking in all public places - including bars and restaurants - by January 2008, sending the proposal on to the full council.

The measure is expected to receive final council approval as soon as next month.

"It's something we should be proud of," said Councilman Robert W. Curran.

But the legislation's ultimate fate might rest with outgoing Mayor Martin O'Malley. The newly elected governor has not decided whether he will veto or support the bill, which could be one of the last to cross his desk before he moves to Annapolis in January.

"We just have to wait until the council acts," said O'Malley spokesman Nick Stewart.

The measure 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 and are granted a waiver.

The mayor has repeatedly said he prefers a statewide smoking ban to prohibitions being passed by individual jurisdictions, which he says could create unfair competition among bars and restaurants.

In Maryland, only Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties have approved bans.

The council's five-member Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, which Curran chairs, voted 4-1 for the bill that he has championed for years.

Yesterday, a few amendments slightly weakened the measure. One change would make violations of the proposed ban a civil, rather than a criminal offense. 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.

The ban as proposed would begin Jan. 1, 2008, giving Baltimore businesses and the city Health Department a full year to implement it.

Curran said Baltimore is one of the last major American cities that does not have a ban, and that he is hopeful the council will support its passage next month.

The bill, to be considered by the full council at its Dec. 4 and Dec. 7 meetings, moved along without Councilman James B. Kraft's support. Kraft said the ban, if approved, could be the "death knell" for corner bars, especially those near Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, where bans do not exist.

Kraft said his father died of lung cancer caused by smoking and that he knows the ban is the "right thing to do." But he said his constituents include bars and restaurants that he believes will be put out of business.

"This is the most difficult vote I've had to cast in my two years on the council," he said.

One of the amendments approved yesterday - pushed by city Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein - would allow businesses to apply for waivers if they could prove that complying creates an "undue financial hardship" or that "other factors exist that would render compliance unreasonable."

Sharfstein said yesterday that establishing the rules for waivers would take place over the next year and that the process would be administered fairly.

He said other cities have found that businesses do not apply for waivers because they "find the impact is not as fierce as they feared." In New York City, Sharfstein said, less than a dozen businesses have applied for waivers.

Sharfstein also supported an amendment that deleted language making violations criminal misdemeanors.

"I don't think the police are going to come running everytime someone lights up a cigarette," he said.

Proponents, led by the American Cancer Society, have argued that bans are needed to protect the health of waiters, bartenders and other restaurant employees who are forced to breathe secondhand smoke.

"This is an historic day for Baltimore," said Bob Doyle, a volunteer leader with Smoke-Free Charm City, in a statement. "We are one-step closer to providing equal protection for all workers in the city and citizens from the significant dangers of secondhand smoke."

Opponents, led by the state's restaurant association, believe the ban will hurt businesses.

"It's all about choice," said John Vontran, former president of the Baltimore City Licensed Beverage Association. "If you're offended by secondhand smoke you should be working in a bookstore."

The competing concerns - the health of workers versus the health of businesses - have make the bill tricky for some on the council. But two council members who have grappled with the issue - Vice President Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - voted for the measure yesterday in committee. Councilman Kenneth N. Harris also backed the bill.

"Health trumps money," Mitchell said.

But Curran said yesterday he fears that O'Malley - who is married to the councilman's niece - might not approve the legislation if it passes the council. The mayor has been supportive of a statewide ban, arguing that it would minimize the economic impact on businesses operating under local prohibitions.

Maryland's Democratic-controlled legislature has killed a proposed statewide smoking ban four years in a row. New York, California and Massachusetts approved statewide bans after their largest cities passed local restrictions, advocates say.

"I'm hoping this is the impetus for the state to do it," Curran said.

With O'Malley's support in doubt, Curran said one option he's considering is to try to get the council to delay its final two votes - pushing the legislation into January and leaving it to council President Sheila Dixon to act on the bill after she becomes the new mayor.

Dixon has been supportive of the measure and is studying how businesses in other cities across the nation have fared under smoking bans.

"She thinks it's the right way to go," said Ruffin Brown, executive director of Dixon's office.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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