Leopold proposes smoking ban

Anne Arundel executive says he hopes local effort would spur a statewide prohibition

January 11, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Seeking to build momentum for a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold yesterday proposed prohibiting smoking at county establishments as a way of promoting public health and boosting the local economy.

But the chairman of the County Council said he does not plan to introduce Leopold's measure, which would be required for it to be considered, until after Maryland lawmakers take up the issue statewide.

"This action is in no way a statement of position regarding this bill," said County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Republican. "I respect County Executive Leopold's leadership and commitment to public health issues."

Leopold, a melanoma survivor who recently took office, acknowledged that the timing of his announcement -- on the opening day of the General Assembly session -- was aimed at encouraging legislators to pass a statewide ban.

"A ban would be a positive development," said Leopold, a former state legislator from Pasadena. "Perhaps my pronouncement will be helpful in enacting a statewide ban. That would be my hope."

Five counties in Maryland have enacted such bans -- Montgomery, Prince George's, Talbot, Charles and Howard -- and Baltimore City officials have been considering such a move. A smoking ban went into effect this month at bars and restaurants in Washington.

As mayor, Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley opposed a city smoking ban, pointing to the potential loss of patrons to counties without such restrictions. But he has remained noncommittal on a statewide ban.

Claire Mullins, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of Maryland, called Leopold's announcement "an important development" in building momentum for a statewide ban. She noted that 1,000 deaths each year in Maryland are linked to cigarette smoke exposure.

"Anytime you have leaders [such] as County Executive Leopold saying this is critical legislation, it sends a message to the community that their public health is being made a priority," she said. "It sends a message to Annapolis that it's time to send this message to everyone."

Under Leopold's proposal, an initial violation would carry a fine of $500 for the establishment; a second offense would result in a $1,000 fine. Smokers could also be penalized.

Such a ban would apply across Anne Arundel County, including in Annapolis, but the regulations would not apply to private clubs. The county executive said a ban would lure more nonsmoking customers, especially families, to restaurants, improve convention business in the county and spur job growth.

Melvin Thompson, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said a county smoking ban would boost business at chain restaurants but could hurt small, family-owned operations. When a locality bans smoking, Thompson said, independently owned establishments "cut back on hours, lay off employees or close completely."

A smoking ban in Anne Arundel also could send smokers to establishments in other counties, some restaurant owners said. After Prince George's County banned smoking in 2005, Anne Arundel restaurants and bars near the county line saw business increase by 10 percent to 15 percent.

"The damage it will do to county restaurants and bars will be irreparable," said James King, a Republican state delegate and an owner of three restaurants in Anne Arundel.

"If I thought for one minute that I could increase revenue by having a smoking ban, I would do it," he said.

Mullins called that argument "a smokescreen erected by the restaurant association."

"You are seeing in New York ... and every other jurisdiction [with a smoking ban] that the evidence of doom and gloom is just not there," she said.

Some smokers say they believe their days of lighting up at bars and restaurants might be numbered.

Annapolis resident Jim Clark, 68, smoked a cigarette during happy hour at the Rams Head Tavern while enjoying a beer. "I try to drop in before I go to dinner ... every day, if I can," he said. With more jurisdictions across the country turning to ban smoking, Clark said he thinks it's just a matter of time before lawmakers ban smoking in Maryland.

But Clark added, "I think there should be a place for smokers just like there's a place for nonsmokers."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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