By Rosalind S. Helderman and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 24, 2006
Flirtations with smoking bans in Virginia and Maryland came to abrupt ends yesterday, as legislative panels in each state rejected bills that would have made restaurants and virtually all other public places smoke-free.
In Virginia, a House of Delegates subcommittee unanimously rejected a bill that had won Senate approval despite the state's long-standing ties to the tobacco industry.
In Maryland, a House committee chaired by a Baltimore delegate whose downtown district is dotted with bars and taverns turned back a similar proposal by a narrow margin.
Health groups -- including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association -- lobbied extensively for the bans. Eleven other states have approved such prohibitions, as evidence mounted about the health risks of breathing secondhand smoke and more people stopped smoking.
Delegates in both states said that many business owners have prohibited smoking in response to customer demands but that those who wish to cater to smokers should be allowed to do so.
"The problem is, I want to have smoke-free restaurants and businesses. But in America, you don't pass a law to tell a private business owner who is paying rent or mortgage payments what he can and can't do in his own place," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).
The proposed ban attracted particular attention in Virginia, the nation's No. 3 tobacco-growing state. The Senate's narrow approval of the bill was interpreted by many as a sign of the loosening of the industry's hold in a state that is home to the worldwide headquarters of Philip Morris.
The Senate sponsor, a Roanoke Republican, presented his measure as a public health necessity, arguing that science has proved the dangers of secondhand smoke.
"The bottom line is that we're not talking about a smoker's right to smoke indoors," said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II. "We're talking about my right not to breath in 4,000 chemicals and 60 known carcinogens that are associated with secondhand smoke."
Many lawmakers had predicted a quick death in the Virginia House, which has a long history of rejecting measures its members say amount to government nannyism. The smoking ban failed its first legislative test in the body, dying in a six-member subcommittee of the General Laws Committee.
"This is the wrong way to go about forcing this on businesses," Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) said during the hearing. "People have to take some type of personal responsibility and not expect the state to do it for them."
Under House rules, the subcommittee vote means the bill dies for the year unless the full committee's chairman agrees the 22 members should hear the measure as well. In this case, Chairman Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico) said he does not intend to hold such a hearing. Bell said he was not surprised. "There's always a resistance to change," he said.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has not been supportive of the measure either.
In Maryland, three counties -- Montgomery, Talbot and more recently Prince George's -- have banned smoking. But efforts to extend the prohibition statewide failed yesterday for the fourth consecutive year when the measure fell two votes short in the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
Legislators in Annapolis were bombarded with e-mails, phone calls and petitions from representatives of both sides of the debate.
"People who walk these halls complain about the high cost of medical care, and here was a golden opportunity to do something about it," Eric Gally, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association, said after the 11 to 11 vote. "Once again, we've taken a pass."
Melvin Thompson, lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, applauded the outcome as a sign that legislators had heard the message that "smoking bans are most damaging to smaller restaurants and bars."
From the beginning, the bill sponsored by Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's) faced resistance from Democratic leaders of the General Assembly and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
Prospects for passage dimmed with the departure of John Adams Hurson (D) of Montgomery County, the former House health committee chairman who represented a jurisdiction that had passed a local ban. The new committee chairman, Del. Peter A. Hammen (D), represents an area of downtown Baltimore that he said is home to nearly half the liquor licenses in the city.
Ties to Maryland's tobacco-growing past also appeared to play a role in the bill's defeat. Missing from the vote yesterday was Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert), a Southern Maryland lawmaker whom health care lobbyists considered critical to the outcome. Kullen, who stopped by the committee room shortly before the vote, said she had a scheduling conflict with another hearing.
"We were trying to monkey around with the schedule, but it didn't work out so well," she said. "I had an excused absence."
During a hearing on the bill last week, Kullen said the issue was a difficult one for legislators from more rural parts of Maryland.
"For me, it's the tobacco legacy I'm wrestling with. It's just not good to demonize the tobacco leaf," she said. "But it does have health implications."
After the committee meeting yesterday, Kullen would not say how she would have voted.
"I was leaning in favor of the bill," she said, "but was still concerned about the effect on business."
Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.