Ban may soon clear the air

Exemptions are sticking point in smoking proposals

General Assembly

March 24, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,sun reporter

The Maryland General Assembly moved closer to passage of a statewide ban on smoking in most public indoor places yesterday, though legislators are still at odds over how to craft exemptions from the law for certain establishments.

The House of Delegates and Senate decided to move separate bills to final votes tomorrow and Monday, respectively. Legislative leaders say the bills have the votes to pass in both chambers, so the next step would be a potentially contentious conference during which differences between the two versions must be ironed out if the measure is to become law.

A principal sticking point is a Senate exemption for private clubs that's not included in the House legislation. Another point of contention is how to grant "hardship" waivers if bars and restaurants can demonstrate that the ban harms them financially. The House would have the state health department decide who receives a waiver, while the Senate leaves that decision to county health officials.

"I'm confident we'll be able to work something out," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill. "It's hard to argue the public health implications of second-hand smoke. We're going to have healthier people and more health care dollars as a result of this."

The statewide ban would primarily prohibit lighting up in restaurants and bars, which were not covered when the state prohibited smoking in most workplaces more than a decade ago. Gov. Martin O'Malley has lobbied for the ban and pledged to sign legislation if it reaches his desk. He has said he would prefer the bill to have as few exemptions as possible.

Both the Senate and House versions take effect at the beginning of next year, when Baltimore is scheduled to go smoke-free. The Baltimore City Council approved a smoking ban last month. Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties also have enacted bans.

While legislators expressed optimism that they will be able to compromise, they also said they would strongly defend their positions. In particular, senators said fraternal groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars should be allowed to smoke in their clubhouses. In the bill, private clubs are defined as nonprofit organizations for social, educational, patriotic, political or athletic purposes.

"In many of the rural areas, the American Legion is the only club around," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and the Finance Committee chairman. "These are World War II vets, what few of them who are left, and often they go to these clubs and smoke and have a couple of beers, and that's life. That's something the senators from the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland are trying to hold onto."

Garagiola said private clubs where members or volunteers serve themselves beverages or food wouldn't fall under the smoking ban. The Senate exemption is for clubs that have employees, as many of the larger ones do.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland, which opposes the smoking ban, also takes issue with the club exemption, arguing that would give them an unfair advantage over restaurants that would no longer cater to a smoking clientele. At the same time, health advocates say people who work in those clubs deserve a smoke-free environment.

The House and Senate also take different approaches to the hardship waiver. 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. The debate is whether to have one standard or give local control.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, backed the House's statewide standard. "You don't want to create a competitive disadvantage if in one jurisdiction it's an easy standard and in another jurisdiction it's a much more diligent standard."

The Senate and House bills also exempt tobacco shops. That would likely include hookah lounges - where patrons smoke flavored tobacco through a water pipe - if the sale of tobacco is their primary business and the sale of other products is incidental. Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, had raised the possibility of exempting the hookah lounges earlier this week but didn't try to do so yesterday.

Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat who opposes the smoking ban, argued on the House floor yesterday that if legislators "really, really are concerned" about the health of Marylanders, then they should ban the production or sale of all tobacco products in the state. He offered an amendment that would have done that, but it was voted down.

Similarly, Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, offered an amendment yesterday that would have replaced the ban with a requirement that restaurants that allow smoking post "smoking permitted" signs at their entrances. The Virginia legislature approved a similar measure last month. Garagiola said that would gut his bill, and the amendment was voted down decisively.

"Believe it or not, as individuals you have to make a tough decision over whether to enter an establishment," Colburn said during a brief debate. "We can't always legislate to protect people from themselves."

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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