Smoke-free at last

April 12, 2007

One should expect a lot of grousing from certain quarters between now and next February when Maryland's ban on smoking in all restaurants and bars goes into effect. The bill that emerged from the General Assembly turned out stronger than expected - with no exemptions, a tough standard on financial hardship waivers and a three-year limit on those waivers. As a result, virtually all Maryland businesses will be covered by 2011.

That's a stunning achievement by the coalition of health care advocates and others who have been pushing this for years. And while the law is certain to have a positive impact on public health, it continues to be mischaracterized by its detractors as an effort to curb smoking at the expense of the state's hospitality industry.

First and foremost, the legislation has always been about closing the loophole that exempts bars and some restaurants from the state's workplace smoking ban. The harmful effects of secondhand smoke are well-documented. That's why office workers, retail clerks and almost all other jobholders are protected. Waiters and bartenders simply deserved the same consideration.

This isn't because secondhand smoke is unpleasant or offensive or politically incorrect. The country's top public health authorities, including the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. surgeon general, point to it as the cause of tens of thousands of deaths through lung cancer and coronary heart disease each year. The total annual economic cost of secondhand smoke in Maryland alone is reported to be more than a half-billion dollars.

Will the law inconvenience some bar patrons and bar owners who have grown accustomed to smoking without regard to the health consequences for the workers around them? Probably (although the economic harm to these businesses is often overstated). But the same might be said of regulations that require manufacturers to protect workers from toxic chemicals. Government is expected to maintain a minimum safety standard in the workplace. The statewide smoking ban simply fulfills that obligation.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has promised to sign the bill, and when he does, Maryland will become the 18th state with a law requiring that all restaurants and bars be smoke-free. If there is grumbling to be noted, let it be from those workers whose health has suffered from exposure to secondhand smoke and weren't spared soon enough.

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