Taking smoking off the menu

County spreads word on ban in restaurants and bars, which takes full effect June 1

May 09, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Smokers can still light up in some Howard County restaurants and bars, but not for long.

The protracted local struggle over the issue formally ends June 1, when the county's no-smoking law takes full effect. The final legislation, which allowed smoking to continue in bars and restaurants with physically separate sections until June, passed on a 3-2 party-line County Council vote June 5 of last year.

County officials plan to publicize the ban affecting bars and restaurants at an afternoon news conference at Mi Casa, a restaurant in the 3300 block of St. Johns Lane in Ellicott City, whose owners eliminated smoking more than a year ago.

Howard County becomes the first location in the Baltimore area to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, following Talbot, Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland. A similar ban takes effect in Baltimore in January, and a statewide ban goes into effect in February.

"Excitement would be an understatement," said Glenn Schneider, government affairs coordinator for the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition, who has worked for years toward a ban. "It's going to be as good as a cold beer on a hot summer day, or an ice cream cone on the boardwalk -- absolutely refreshing."

Schneider called it "absolutely appropriate" that the American Cancer Society Relay for Life takes place the same day that the new law takes effect.

Business owners will receive letters and brochures in three languages about the new law shortly, Howard County Health Officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said, adding that he's not anticipating any enforcement problems.

"I go to lots of places here in Columbia and Ellicott City. I have yet to run across anyone smoking, anyplace," he said. "We're not counting on a large number of complaints coming in."

Beilenson said his health inspectors would handle enforcement and set up a telephone hot line for complaints. Police will become involved only if a bar or restaurant patron who is smoking after June 1 refuses to stop when told about the law.

After a complaint, a county inspector will visit a business with a warning. A second violation would spark a compulsory educational conference at the health department, plus a $250 citation. A third incident would produce a fine ranging from $250 to $500 and subsequent problems could result in a lost business license, Beilenson said.

Several business owners who still allow smoking said they are waiting until the law takes effect to make the change, and industry leaders said they've not heard of major business changes as the deadline approaches.

"In our case we're waiting for the date. We don't know what might happen," said Jordan Naftal, owner of Jordan's Steak House on Main Street in Historic Ellicott City and a former Howard County Restaurant Association president.

Joe Barbera, the current president, and Restaurant Association of Maryland vice president Melvin Thompson said they know of no restaurant and bar owners prohibiting smoking ahead of the deadline.

Gigi Thompson, manager of La Palapa, another Main Street restaurant that allows smoking, said she's "hoping to establish smoking areas [outside] in seats near the doors." Main Street is exempt from the law's ban on smoking within 15 feet of a door or window, because of the narrow sidewalks.

Chander Tschand, 57, general manager of Mi Casa, said he ended smoking at the restaurant 20 months ago for two reasons.

"We had a section for smoking, and nobody sat there," he said. "If somebody sat there and smoked, everybody complained.

Tschand also said he began having heart problems that his doctor associated with secondhand smoke from earlier years, before the number of smokers tailed off. A heart bypass operation followed. "It was a very easy decision for us," he said.larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard County's Health Department smoking ban violation hot line is 410-313-6263.

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