Smoking ban wins approval

Nine on council back law to take effect Jan. 1

momentum for state bill grows

February 27, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore will join hundreds of communities across the nation that prohibit smoking in bars after the City Council approved a smoking ban last night with a margin of support that swelled in the hours leading up to the final vote.

Nine council members - one more than needed for approval - stood to support the smoking ban just weeks after it appeared dead, a rapid turnaround that some attribute to lucky timing and others to an 11th-hour lobbying effort by Mayor Sheila Dixon. The ban, which Dixon said she will sign, takes effect Jan. 1.

With Baltimore's ban set, attention now shifts to Annapolis, where the General Assembly is considering a statewide ban that has failed in past legislative sessions.

Nearly half of Maryland's population will be covered by stringent smoking prohibitions by next year, and supporters hope that will prompt the state to act.

"This is a historic night in this chamber and for our city," said City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran, the lead sponsor of the bill who has been methodically working toward its approval for nearly two years. "Lives will be saved."

Baltimore's ban will prohibit smoking in nearly all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Outdoor areas of restaurants, private property and cigar bars that meet certain criteria will be exempt. Businesses that violate the ban face a $500 fine for each offense, and smokers could be hit with a $250 penalty.

City Council members stood one at a time to explain their position, and proponents erupted into applause after each "yes" vote was recorded. Virtually every member who supported the ban said they hoped their action would inspire the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O'Malley to enact a statewide ban that would protect taverns on the border with non-ban counties.

Howard, Prince George's, Montgomery and Talbot counties have similar smoking prohibitions. Baltimore joins New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and dozens of other large cities that have imposed some form of smoking restrictions.

"I believe that now it will happen at the state," Dixon said during an impromptu press conference shortly after the vote. "The state was waiting for this to happen."

In Annapolis last night, proponents of the statewide ban said they hope the City Council's action will provide momentum for the General Assembly.

"It's great that the city is taking a leadership role, and we're hopeful that this provides additional momentum to pass a statewide ban," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat and former city councilwoman, downplayed concerns that the statewide ban would hurt businesses, such as restaurants, and said the ban would put the entire state on a level playing field.

The ban is pending before two key committees in the Senate and House of Delegates, and legislative leaders say it has a good chance of passage this year.

"I think the time has come," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "It's a health issue. It's a quality of life issue. So many major jurisdictions have the law in place; it only makes sense for us to have a uniform state law."

Advocates and opponents marveled at the speed at which the council seemed to move from uncertainty to solid support - a change that was due in part to the timing of vacancies and departures. As late as last week, the proposal appeared to not have the votes it needed and even Curran, the ban's main booster, suggested he was working on a concession speech.

On a procedural vote taken Feb. 12 the smoking ban received support from six members - enough to advance the legislation and put it on the calendar for a final vote, but two shy of the eight-vote margin needed for final approval. Hours before last night's vote was taken, the council filled the vacant 6th District seat with Sharon Green Middleton, who ultimately supported the ban.

Only two voted against the ban - Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. - and three abstained. One member, Edward L. Reisinger, was absent.

"We have an option as customers. No one's telling us to go into that bar that's smoky," D'Adamo said. "We're not Howard County. We're not Montgomery County and we're not Prince George's County."

City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who abstained during the ban's procedural vote, decided to support the measure last night. Days before, Branch announced that she would leave the council for a private sector job.

"Second-hand smoke is a public health hazard, legal or not," Branch said after her vote.

In addition to the maneuvering, the ban also received an important last-minute push by Dixon. Though she had been publicly supportive of the ban for months, several observers said the new mayor - who often lists health as a major priority of her administration - made a series of phone calls to members who had abstained on past votes.

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