House panel hears 2 sides on smoking

Odds on passing statewide ban at restaurants appear better than in past years

March 08, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

More than 100 people - from health advocates and restaurateurs to cigar shop owners, lobbyists, bartenders and even an illusionist - descended on Annapolis yesterday to testify on a proposal to ban smoking in most Maryland restaurants and bars.

The General Assembly is considering the ban after several local jurisdictions, most recently Baltimore City, approved their own measures prohibiting smoking in indoor public places, primarily bars and restaurants. The statewide measure has died in the legislature for four consecutive years, though proponents fresh from victory in the city say their chances are greater this year.

By now, the faces of the debate are familiar ones.

The opponents include Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for tobacco distributors, and Melvin R. Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Supporters include Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran, lead sponsor of that city's ban, and Dana Koteen, a server at a restaurant in Baltimore who has been master of ceremonies at numerous anti-smoking rallies.

All of them made appearances at yesterday's hearing before the House Economic Matters Committee. Even Wayne Alan, an illusionist who backs the ban because he performs at smoky venues, showed up. With a handful of dollars in hand, he argued that the ban would not hurt pubs and other small businesses as opponents contend. Afterward, he proffered the dollars to help with the state's structural deficit.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, the committee chairman and a Prince George's County Democrat, limited debate and told those who planned to testify to keep their emotions in check. "The members of this committee are very interested in all you have to say," he said. "But we can't give you all day to say it."

At the onset of this year's legislative session, Davis had expressed some reluctance to hold a hearing on the smoking ban without assurances that it had the votes to pass in both chambers. Then last month, the city passed its ban, and the next day, Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged to sign a statewide bill if it reached his desk, adding momentum to the proposal.

Five counties in Maryland - Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - have enacted smoking bans. The House committee could vote any time in the coming weeks, and the Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on the ban for next week.

While legislative leaders including House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller say the smoking ban appears to have the votes needed for passage in the full chambers, the outcome of the committee votes is uncertain.

One opponent, Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, took issue with the bill's exemption for private clubs and suggested an amendment that would do away with that language. But Del. Barbara A. Frush, a Prince George's Democrat, said Minnick was really trying to kill the bill by breaking up the coalition of supporters, including some who insist on such an exemption.

Another sticking point is an exemption for tobacco shops. Several shop owners testified yesterday that the language is too narrow, so that few would be exempted. They also criticized the ban as an infringement on smokers' rights. Michael Copperman of Bethesda Tobacco called the push for the ban "intolerance masquerading as health advocacy."

Meanwhile, proponents framed the issue as a matter of public health, pointing to medical research on the dangers of secondhand smoke, including a report last year from U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona. "It is a clear and present danger to those unfortunate enough to have to inhale it," Frush said.

Among those testifying on the health dangers was Julie Pinto, who works part time at a bar in Berlin in Worcester County and doesn't smoke. She said that when she applied for a life insurance policy and gave blood and urine samples, the company found nicotine in her system and wanted to charge her higher premiums.

"Until this occurred, I never truly believed secondhand smoke was harmful to my health," she said.

Restaurateurs at the hearing were split on the ban.

Owners of the Greene Turtle restaurant chain and Sly Fox pubs in Baltimore and Annapolis said they were voluntarily making some of their establishments smoke-free, but that they wanted a statewide ban to ensure they aren't hurt by competitors who continue to allow smoking.

Andrew Fox, whose family runs the pubs that bear their name, said a doctor once told his brother, Chris, to quit smoking because his lungs were damaged. But Chris was not a smoker, he said.

Other restaurant owners testified against the smoking ban. Thompson, of the restaurant association, said it's a matter of choice. "Under existing Maryland law, any establishment that wants to go smoke-free can do so tomorrow," he said.

Minnick, in an exchange with Comptroller Peter Franchot, indicated that the smoking ban could lead to stricter regulation of tobacco. He referred to other smoking legislation that has been proposed in Annapolis, including a bill that would prohibit a person from smoking a tobacco product in a vehicle in which a person younger than 6 is a passenger.

"Why not just do away with all tobacco products in the state?" Minnick asked.

Franchot responded that he would oppose that idea.

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