City Council action moves smoking ban a step closer

Stage set for final vote in 2 weeks

bill would need 2 more supporters

February 13, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Setting the stage for a final vote on Baltimore's proposed smoking ban, the City Council narrowly advanced the measure last night, a move that proponents hope will provide momentum for their cause and also prompt the General Assembly to approve a statewide ban.

In a tense and sometimes emotional session, six council members voted to support a smoking ban for city restaurants and bars, advancing the bill farther than it has ever been before. The vote, though largely procedural, places the ban on the calendar for a final decision in two weeks.

Mayor Sheila Dixon has expressed her support for a smoking ban.

For adoption, the proposed ban will need eight votes, and even its chief sponsor, City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran, acknowledges that is a tall order.

Still, Curran called yesterday's vote a victory and said he will work to find the two other votes needed to pass the measure before the council's next meeting on Feb. 26.

"If we show the courage in Baltimore to pass this, I believe the courage will then be in Annapolis to pass it statewide," said Curran, a former smoker who has been shepherding the bill through the city's arcane legislative process for more than a year. "I'm hoping the wisdom of the council is to move this forward."

If Baltimore approves a smoking ban, it will join New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and dozens of other large cities that have imposed some form of smoking restrictions. Large cities that have not approved such bans include Memphis, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C.

Baltimore's proposal would prohibit smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Business owners could apply for a waiver, which would be reviewed by the city Health Department.

Recent amendments would delay implementation to Jan. 1, 2008, and halve the fines to $500 for a business owner in violation and $250 for an individual smoker.

Another amendment would exempt restaurateurs from liability for smoking if the owner posted a no-smoking sign, removed ashtrays, asked smokers to leave and refused to serve them.

In an indication of the controversy surrounding the bill, most members stood for several minutes to explain their position before voting.

Calling the decision "the hardest vote I've had to take since I've come on this council," Councilman James B. Kraft said he was weighing the memory of his father, who died of lung cancer, against the makeup of his district, which includes Fells Point and other restaurant-heavy neighborhoods.

He voted no.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a candidate for mayor, said supporting the measure was easy: "To me, it was a health decision."

Throughout the day, advocates and opponents held rallies on Baltimore's pending legislation and bills introduced in the General Assembly that would impose a statewide ban.

Also last night, the nine-member Annapolis city council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the General Assembly and Anne Arundel County officials to approve smoking bans. The council also introduced two bills, one that would directly ban smoking in Annapolis and another that would mimic whatever legislation is approved for the county.

Five counties in Maryland - Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - have enacted smoking bans.

Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said yesterday's vote in the City Council was not necessarily an indication of support for either proposed ban.

"This is really not the final passage vote, and it's just a procedural thing to move the bill forward," said Thompson, who organized the rally outside City Hall before the council meeting. "We're confident that we can stop it."

Like the General Assembly, the City Council conducts "second reader" votes on legislation once it is approved in committee. To advance, bills need a majority of those voting "yes" or "no," meaning that members who abstain, or "pass," are not considered in calculating a majority.

Six council members voted in favor of the ban yesterday, three voted against it, and five abstained. One seat, formerly occupied by City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, is vacant. If the five members who abstained had voted against the measure, the ban would have failed.

"It's extremely important to recognize the enormous role smoking and the exposure to secondhand smoke plays in heart disease and death in Baltimore," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner.

Sun reporter Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.

Smoking ban

The City Council advanced a proposed smoking ban on second reader procedural vote yesterday. That puts the ban up for final approval Feb. 26. Voting "yes": President Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, Vice President Robert W. Curran, Kenneth N. Harris Sr., Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., Mary Pat Clarke. Voting "no" : James B. Kraft, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., Bernard C. "Jack" Young. Abstaining: Belinda Conaway, Helen L. Holton, Agnes Welch, Edward L. Reisinger, Paula Johnson Branch.

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