Leadership on smoking ban evaded by city, state

January 02, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

After you. No, really, after you.

An excess of politesse? More like a surfeit of sidestepping: Long after numerous cities and states have taken the plunge and survived all sorts of predicted disasters, Baltimore and Maryland are still dancing around who will take the lead and ban smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places.

First the City Council delayed action on a smoking ban, fearing that the mayor-for-a-few-more-days, Martin O'Malley, would veto it. He's always opposed a city ban - saying it would merely shoo smokers and their business over to county bars - in favor of a statewide measure. But now that he's governor-in-a-few-more-days, O'Malley has been noncommittal about pressing for the larger ban.

Meanwhile, some state legislators are saying that if Baltimore went first, it would make it easier for the General Assembly to follow suit. Or maybe, if the city joined the other large jurisdictions, such as Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, that have a ban, a statewide measure wouldn't even be necessary.

Way to show leadership, everyone!

Whoever goes first isn't even really going first. Today, for example, Washington goes smoke-free - unless you get yourself elected to Congress, which has exempted itself from the citywide ban - joining 16 states and more than 2,000 localities that have cleared indoor air spaces.

Entire countries, even traditionally cigarette-happy ones such as Hong Kong, Ireland and Italy, have smoking bans. France - I repeat, France, where smoking is a veritable art form - begins rolling in a ban next month. (Let's see if those French women still don't get fat now.)

The remaining opposition comes largely from bar and restaurant owners, who claim they'll lose money every time someone has to get off his or her barstool to light up outside. We'll sell fewer drinks! Bartenders will get fewer tips!

Too bad.

Sorry, but things change and people adapt. And lost tips are hardly on the level of what, say, garment workers went through when their industry went abroad, or those on the Detroit assembly lines when drivers decided they preferred Toyotas over Fords.

Besides, I don't buy the scenario that a smoking ban leads to a mass exit from drinking holes. And, in fact, cities and states have found the opposite: In New York City, for example, officials found that bars and restaurants were employing more people and paying more taxes on sales one year after a statewide ban went into effect. (Industry officials have disputed those figures, saying that since they don't separate restaurants from bars, they mask the greater effect the ban has had on the latter.)

With or without a smoking ban, people are always going to need what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "the third place," somewhere that is neither home nor work, where you are neither an employee nor a family member whose turn it is to load the dishwasher. If it has a nicely stocked bar or a good menu, all the better.

It hardly seems possible that this is still an issue in Maryland, at this late date, when other locales have long since moved past smoking and are on to attempting much trendier bans against foie gras, trans fat and high-fructose corn syrup.

Smoking already seems like an artifact from the past. There's a restaurant near my house that I've been to only once because it seems filled not just with its current smokers' smoke, but that of every smoker from the past 25 years. I'm not sure how the place complies with the requirement of a separate smoking area - maybe it has one of those invisible walls, like the ones that used to divide the smoking and nonsmoking sections of an airplane. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn the cook was smoking in the kitchen as well - you didn't just inhale smoke in there, you felt like you were eating it in your meal, too.

I don't think I've ever worked in a place that smoky, although people used to regularly smoke in the newsroom - wastebasket fires were an occasional source of much amusement. Then they got their own room, with a few phones, computers and ashtrays, where they could light up and still work. Now, of course, you can't smoke anywhere in the newsroom, it being a workplace and covered by current Maryland law.

Bars and restaurants are workplaces, too. It's time for someone in city or state government to take the lead, forget about those tips that bartenders and wait staff are supposedly are going to lose if their patrons can't smoke and do something to save their lungs and hearts instead.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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