Debate smolders as ban on smoking looms in Md.

April 11, 2007|By Laura Smitherman and Kelly Brewington | Laura Smitherman and Kelly Brewington,sun reporters

Walk into the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis on a given night and the first thing you might notice -- before the lobbyists and legislators hobnobbing, waiters dashing between tables, or the old-world wooden bar -- is the smoke.

But the smoke won't be getting in anyone's eyes after February 2008. Down the street from the Rams Head, where a sign in the front window reads "Where great minds meet," the Maryland General Assembly gave final approval this week to a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.

After four years of debating the smoking bill and weeks of wrangling over who should be exempted, state lawmakers passed one of the most stringent bans in the nation.

Under the final version, bars and restaurants next year will be required to be smoke-free, as will private clubs such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.

Establishments might be able to secure hardship waivers from the state, but those would expire in 2011. Tobacco shops will be almost the only public indoor places where smoking will be allowed.

Reaction at bars and restaurants yesterday ran the gamut from relief to anger, from those who think customers and employees have a right to a smoke-free environment to those who think the state is trampling individual rights.

Caught in the middle are people such as Mark Colberg, general manager and bartender at Rams Head. Sure, he said, people complain about how smoky the place can get. But as someone whose job involves lending an ear, he said he can understand all sides of the debate.

"As employees we're for it, but from an owner's point of view, I can see why they aren't for it. They don't like more government regulation," Colberg said. "And if people smoke, it is their choice."

Maryland will join more than 20 states that have enacted such bans when Gov. Martin O'Malley signs the legislation, which he is expected to do by mid-May.

Five Maryland counties -- Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot -- have previously gone smoke-free. And Baltimore's decision to follow suit this year added momentum to the statewide effort.

Legislators gave final approval to the bill Monday after a sometimes-raucous debate in committee rooms and on the chamber floors.

Advocates have been pushing for the ban for several years, and proponents in the legislature said the bill would protect public health.

But some bar and restaurant owners, principally through the Restaurant Association of Maryland lobbying group, fought what they characterized as a business-busting measure.

Much of the legislating and lobbying continued through the final days of the three-month session. During that time, legislators dropped a proposed exemption for private clubs, including fraternal organizations. They also crafted a hardship waiver program in which the state would develop rules on how to grant waivers for bars and restaurants that could establish that they would be hurt financially. Local officials would be in charge of issuing them.

The waiver program could set up another battle.

Melvin R. Thompson of the restaurant association said businesses will be watching the regulations on waivers closely.

"We're hoping that it will be an easy and efficient process," he said.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, who must be consulted on the waiver process under the legislation, said yesterday that hardship exemptions would be "few and far between." He backed the smoking ban.

Establishments that violate the ban will get a written reprimand for the first violation, a $100 fine for the second and fines of at least $250 for each subsequent violation.

After lawmakers complained that establishments shouldn't be punished because of errant customers, the legislation was amended to take into consideration whether a smoking customer was asked to leave and whether the establishment had posted no-smoking signs and removed ashtrays.

The debate over the smoking ban is over in the General Assembly but is likely be heard for months to come among customers at Minnick's Restaurant in Dundalk, owned by Del. Joseph J. "Sonny" Minnick, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Minnick opposed the ban and warned his colleagues that businesses would suffer. His family has owned the restaurant since the 1920s.

He said yesterday that he hopes the restaurant, because it is a well-established neighborhood haunt where the lounge is outfitted in dark leather seats and the ceiling twinkles with blue lights, won't lose patrons.

"What makes a bar is the customers," Minnick said. "It's like a small community. These people come because they enjoy the camaraderie."

And at Minnick's, they often come with cigarette in hand.

The ban "is going to be a big inconvenience that I really wish I didn't have to put on them," Minnick said. When it appeared that legislators would approve the ban, he said, his regulars grumbled, "Sonny, better stop that."

He didn't. And Maggie Ross, a regular for 25 years, isn't happy about it.

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