Poof! Smoke gone

June 02, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,[sun reporter]

With just minutes to go before the Baltimore area's first smoking ban in bars and restaurants took effect yesterday, Steve Miller shouted a final rallying cry into the microphone at the crowded Phoenix Emporium on Main Street in historic Ellicott City.

"Last call for cigarettes! Smoke 'em if you got 'em!"

At the back of the room, Bradley Arnold, who turned 22 yesterday, lit up and shouted back, "Chainsmoke till midnight!" Arnold, a bar employee, said he had looked forward to having a beer and a smoke last year, on his 21st birthday, but the pizza place where he celebrated voluntarily outlawed smoking that very night. This year, it's Howard County law that spoiled his fun.

Still, he said, "I plan to quit. It's just one more step for me."

Howard County's long-debated anti-smoking law took effect at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, and the Phoenix's mostly young crowd obeyed, though not without protest.

"It's ridiculous. It's a bar. People drink and they smoke. The only time I smoke is in a bar," said Warren Chase, 33, of Catonsville.

Yvonne Walsh, 37, of Frederick, agreed.

"I've got no desire to go to a bar, if I can't smoke and drink. I would spend more time outside than inside" after the ban takes effect, she said.

"We're pro-choice when it comes to abortion. We should be pro-choice when it comes to smoking," said Miller, 27, of Arbutus, who works as a chef at a Baltimore restaurant.

Mark Breaux, president of the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition that pushed hard for the new law, was up the street in another, quieter pub.

"These are predictable responses," he said. "People knew this law was going into effect. We're happy to have it here. In a few years, people won't even remember you could smoke in bars."

Howard County follows Prince George's, Talbot, Montgomery and Charles counties in enacting a smoking ban. Similar bans will take effect in Baltimore City in January and will cover the entire state of Maryland starting in February.

The Howard health department's hot line for reporting smoking violations had received no calls as of yesterday afternoon, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county health officer.

Daytime calls to the hot line should result in a health inspector arriving at an establishment the same day, Beilenson said. Evening and weekend calls will generate a response in one to four days. Health inspectors will also look for violations during regular spot-checks of restaurants and bars.

Under the law, restaurant or bar operators who refuse to stop patrons from smoking also may be reported to the police. A police spokesman said yesterday afternoon that the department had not received any calls on the ban.

"I don't anticipate a significant problem," Beilenson said. "The ban was partially in effect already, and it's been widely disseminated. The [impending] state ban has people thinking about it."

The Howard law sets fines at $100 per violation for individual smokers and at $250 per violation for managers or owners who allow smoking. A first violation by a bar or restaurant will produce a warning from a county health inspector, Beilenson said. A second violation will trigger a compulsory health department conference, plus a $250 fine. Continuing violations will bring more fines and could lead to loss of a business license, he said.

Anti-smoking advocates insist that people who don't smoke will now be more likely to patronize restaurants and bars, and that smokers will just go outside, as they do at work.

But owners of small independent businesses fear they will lose money.

Mark Hemmis, the Phoenix's owner, had opposed the law. But he dutifully collected all the ashtrays at midnight. "The smoking ban was inevitable," he said.

The band announced the ban repeatedly before the midnight deadline. Hemmis said he wasn't tempted to let people slide for the two hours before 2 a.m. closing.

"This was an easy way to show our customers that we're taking the ban seriously," he said.

Hemmis told County Council members in November 2005 that he had raided his children's college fund to make a balloon payment on his business loan.

"I've got two kids. I robbed them blind. A smoking ban is going to kill me. You know that," he testified.

Now, he said, he has had his place painted, and "we'll wait and see" what happens. It will likely take a few days for the smell to go away, though, he guessed.

Howard's no-smoking law was enacted in June 2006 after months of political wrangling among County Council members. The first phase of the restrictions took effect last August, when the ban on smoking began in most public places, including outdoor entertainment venues such as Merriweather Post Pavilion, sporting events, the Travel America truck stop in Jessup and within 15 feet of the entrance to buildings, except on historic Ellicott City's narrow Main Street.

The only exceptions until yesterday were restaurants and bars that had separate smoking areas with their own ventilation.

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