Senate panel approves state smoking ban

Committee gives OK to bill on a 6-5 vote

measure is expected to pass full Senate

General Assembly

March 20, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

A state Senate panel approved yesterday a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, a vote that marks the first time such a measure has won approval from a General Assembly committee.

"This is a win for public health," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill.

The Senate Finance Committee voted 6-5 to approve the ban on lighting up in most indoor public places, with the panel's chairman, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, casting the tie-breaking vote. The measure now moves to the full Senate, where it is expected to pass. A House committee is expected to vote on a ban this week.

"The problem has always been in the committees," said Kari Appler, director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, which is made up of health advocates. "The momentum around the country and here in the state, that certainly has added a lot to this debate."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has pledged to sign a statewide measure if it reaches his desk. The Baltimore City Council approved a smoking ban last month. Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties also have enacted bans.

The issue has been the subject of much lobbying in Annapolis.

Opponents, including the Restaurant Association of Maryland, argue the ban would hurt businesses, especially mom-and-pop taverns that depend on a smoking clientele. Proponents counter that the dangers of secondhand smoke have been well documented and that workers and nonsmoking patrons in those establishments should be protected. Maryland banned smoking in most workplaces more than a decade ago but exempted bars and restaurants.

The Senate panel approved a provision that would allow bars to apply for a "hardship" waiver from local health officials if they can show that the ban unduly hurts them financially. Baltimore City's ban has a similar provision, and such a system has been used in New York, where few establishments have been able to secure a waiver.

Appler said she's concerned a statewide law could pre-empt county laws, which don't allow for a waiver. But Garagiola pointed out that health officials could tailor the requirements for a waiver so that few would qualify.

"They are health officers, not bar economic development officers," he said.

The Senate panel also decided to exempt tobacco shops and fraternal organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. Sen. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican, described people gathering after military funerals at the local American Legion where they might share a meal and drinks and perhaps a cigarette or cigar.

"These people put their life on the line for this country," Edwards said, saying it would be wrong to ban smoking in the clubs.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said enforcing a ban on smoking in those kinds of clubs amounted to telling smokers to stay home from events. "And we already have a problem with isolation in rural parts of the state," he said. "This is the only game in town for them."

While they pushed for the club exemption, neither Pipkin nor Edwards voted for the final bill.

Bar owners complained that smoking customers might go to clubs rather than to bars.

"Clearly members of the committee understood some of our economic concerns, but at the same time some of our establishments would now have to compete with private clubs," said Melvin R. Thompson of the restaurant association.

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