Limit on puffs not so rough?

Some predict bedlam, others have rosier outlook as bar owners and customers consider smoking ban

January 31, 2008|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

At the end of a particularly spirited night, one in which nearly 90 percent of the more than 60 patrons packed inside the Southside Saloon would puff away hour after hour on cigarettes, owner Stuart Satosky would make it all of about two steps inside his South Baltimore home before the stench would hit his wife, who demanded the immediate removal of his smoke-filled clothes.

"I'd have to put them in another room," said Satosky, a nonsmoker who has owned the bar in the 400 block of E. Fort Ave. for eight years. "It's going to be kind of nice not having to deal with the smoke anymore."

Satosky says it's one of the benefits of the statewide law set to go into effect at midnight that prohibits smoking in most public places, including bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, taxicabs and private clubs such as Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.

The potential cost, however, is not lost on Satosky. For months, he and many of Maryland's 6,000 bar and restaurant owners have listened to the concerns of smoking customers who have fretted over the arrival of this day and the complications that might arise from it.

Owners, naturally, have had their fears of losing substantial business. Customers say they worry about losing their spots at the bar if they go outside for a cigarette.

Justin Ennis, 21, comes nightly to Southside, where he embraces the fog of smoke that engulfs the establishment. This week, between drags on his Newport, Ennis predicted how he, and others like him who have no plans to give up nicotine, will simply smoke in front of the bar.

Ennis said he is sure that the outside areas of congested bars will become chaotic, pitting smokers barred from lighting up at their seats against pedestrians trying to maneuver the sidewalks.

"People are going to be walking by from other bars, drunk and yelling. It's going to lead to other things," Ennis said. "I think that's going to cause a lot more fights."

In front of Liam's Pint-Size Pub in Mount Vernon, Harley March put down her beer this week to join a half-dozen others outside for a smoke session. The bar's manager, Liam Flynn, executed his own smoking ban at the beginning of this year.

March, unhappy with the smoking ban in general and Flynn's early exercise of it in particular, said she won't be deterred from frequenting her favorite establishments, but she fears that date rape crimes will be on the rise as smokers leave drinks unattended to rush outside for a nicotine fix.

For now, she's asking workers to keep an eye on her drinks.

"I'm trusting others leaving my beverage unattended, hoping nobody puts a roofie in my drink," she said, referring to the drug Rohypnol.

Advocates for the smoking ban call these types of concerns nonsense. Five Maryland counties - Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - have already gone smoke-free. And Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's environmental health coordination program, said he has heard of no such problems from these jurisdictions.

Mitchell suggested that some streets might even be safer at night with increased traffic from smokers.

As for unattended drinks, "I can't speak specifically to that, but people should be safe," he said. "We're anticipating and expecting business owners will not allow patrons to be in jeopardy."

Maryland joins more than 2,200 communities and about 20 states with a version of a smoking ban.

State officials say the ban will be enforced through complaints and investigations by local health officers. The first violation will result in a written reprimand, followed by increasing fines. Businesses can apply for hardship waivers if they can prove a substantial sales loss.

Flynn, manager of the bar tucked underneath Kumari Restaurant on Charles Street, said that since implementing his own smoking ban, sales at Liam's have increased slightly as customers turned off by cigarette smoke have returned.

In Howard County - smoke-free for eight months - officials have not received any complaints of lost revenue, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the county's health officer. Since the Howard ban took effect, the county's smoking hot line has received about three dozen calls, but no fines have been issued, Beilenson said.

"The biggest news is that there is no news," Beilenson said. "It came in with a bang and went out with a whimper."

But officials with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which fought the smoking ban, say they are concerned for owners of mom-and-pop bars, places more common in Baltimore and other jurisdictions outside of Howard County.

Melvin R. Thompson, the lobbying group's vice president, said he has received about 50 calls from owners during the past two months with questions about hardship waivers and the rules for outdoor smoking areas.

Still, other restaurant owners are growing more confident that patrons will adapt.

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