Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law one of the most restrictive smoking bans in the nation yesterday, putting to rest four years of wrangling between public health advocates concerned about secondhand smoke and restaurateurs who claimed the measure would hurt neighborhood mom-and-pop operations.
The law requires bars and restaurants, as well as private clubs such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, to be smoke-free by Feb. 1. Some businesses eligible for financial hardship waivers from the state would get a three-year extension but must be smoke-free by 2011. With the law signed, tobacco shops are virtually the only public indoor places where smoking will be allowed in Maryland.
"It's no longer fashionable to be smoking," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said after yesterday's bill-signing ceremony, at which he and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller joined O'Malley. "When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a different thing - you were strange if you didn't smoke. But now there's no longer a question about the carcinogenic effect of tobacco. Jurisdictions around the state were already starting to do it. States around the country were already doing it. The time had come."
Maryland joins about 20 states that have enacted similar bans. Busch said the new law closes a loophole in a 1995 rule that banned smoking in indoor public spaces such as offices but exempted bars and restaurants.
Busch said the state law was "a natural step" after five counties - Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - and the District of Columbia went smoke-free. Baltimore City decided to follow suit this year, and O'Malley then endorsed the statewide effort.
At his fourth and final bill- signing ceremony, the governor also signed measures to replace the state's voting machines by 2010 with machines that have a backup paper trail, to enhance penalties for gang members who commit certain crimes, and to prohibit parole for child sex offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.
"I am proud to sign legislation that will increase penalties for child sex offenders through Jessica's Law, toughen penalties for gang members, reform the Department of Juvenile Services, protect our firefighters from smoking-related fires, and protect our work force from secondhand smoke," O'Malley said in a statement.
Supporters of various bills waited for a half-hour in a hot, cramped hallway leading to the reception room in the State House where the governor signed 164 bills.
Once the governor began his remarks, a member of his security detail shut the large door to the room, barring some reporters and even Business and Economic Development Secretary David W. Edgerley from entering. That left a crush of supporters and state officials alike straining to hear O'Malley laud the consensus that allowed the General Assembly to pass a bevy of bills on public health and safety.
Supporters of the smoking ban - including doctors, cancer survivors and a group of Eastern Shore anti-smoking activists - crowded behind the governor as he signed the Clear Indoor Air Act of 2007.
Del. Barbara A. Frush, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, brought both her daughters and three grandchildren to the bill-signing "because ultimately, that's why you do things - you want to create a better world for your family," she said.
"It's taken seven years of a lot of hard work and a lot of people who care about the welfare of the citizens of this state to get to this point," said Frush, lead sponsor of the House version of the ban. She said she was proud that the law had few loopholes.
"Once you start carving out exceptions, then the bill becomes meaningless," she said.
Ellicott City resident Carole Fisher was also there. A cancer and tuberculosis survivor, Fisher was a smoker for 25 years before she stopped in the 1970s. But doctors told her that she paid the price for her smoking when an aggressive strain of tuberculosis left her fighting for her life in 1997.
"I didn't want my seven grandchildren to go through what I did," Fisher said, wearing a bright yellow "I'd [heart] a smoke-free Maryland" sticker on her lapel. "And now they won't have to deal with secondhand smoke. They can live a healthy life."
Jane McConnel, Paula Lawry and Janet Pfeffer, health advocates from Talbot County who have canvassed the state over the past five years convincing Howard and Prince George's officials to adopt similar bans, were front and center at the signing too. The three women testified before the General Assembly about what a boon the ban could be for health - and commerce, despite businesses' protests.
"We have very successful businesses, the restaurants are doing just fine, and none of our residents have to worry about second-hand smoke," said Pfeffer, who works for a Talbot County nonprofit group that guards against substance addiction.