By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
The Howard County Council voted late yesterday to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, a measure that would make the county part of a five-jurisdiction smoke-free zone stretching from the White House almost to Baltimore.
The measure, which would fine establishments as much as $500 for allowing indoor smoking, was praised by anti-smoking advocates as a bellwether of increasing support for a statewide ban when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.
"I think this definitely increases momentum for a statewide ban," said Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. "I think we are at a tipping point now towards making the entire state smoke-free."
Three Maryland counties -- Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot -- already ban smoking in eating and drinking establishments. A fourth, Charles County, has outlawed smoking in restaurants. The District also prohibits smoking in restaurants; a ban on smoking in bars will take effect in January.
Restaurant and bar owners in Howard fought the ban, which the council approved 3 to 2 last night, because they said it would devastate businesses that have large smoking clienteles.
"It's going to close down a lot of small businesses," said Joe Barbera, president of the Howard County Restaurant Association and owner of Aida Bistro in Columbia. "We're disappointed that all their business is going to move outside of the county."
The measure caps more than a decade of protracted and politically charged efforts to restrict smoking in Howard, which since 1996 has banned it in restaurants and bars unless they created separately ventilated smoking areas.
The movement for a complete ban gained momentum last fall when County Executive James N. Robey (D) proposed a measure that would allow smoking in restaurants and bars but give establishments with separately ventilated smoking areas until 2008 to comply. When the council instead voted 3 to 2 for a different ban, which would give businesses with separate smoking areas until 2010 to comply, Robey vetoed the measure, saying he could not wait four years.
The deadlock led most political analysts to conclude that there was little chance a smoking ban would be approved before the November elections. But the issue was unexpectedly revived in April when council member David A. Rakes (D-East Columbia), who voted for the four-year phase-in, resigned and was replaced by Calvin Ball (D), who supports a one-year phase-in.
The measure that passed last night will ban smoking in eating and drinking establishments once it takes effect in August, but it will give businesses with separate smoking areas until June 2007 to comply. Robey has said he will sign the legislation.
"I think we're all very pleased that once again Howard County will be a leader in public health," said council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), who voted with Ball and Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County) to support the measure. "We'll be able to move forward and protect our citizens and our employees from an unhealthy workplace environment."
Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County), who voted against the measure along with Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County), said the ban was unfair to businesses that spent hundreds of thousand of dollars to create separate smoking areas.
"We promised people that if they put in the extra ventilation equipment, they would be okay. Now we're just cutting them off and telling them we know better than them about their business," Feaga said. "I just think that government is being too much of a Big Brother."
Opponents of the smoking ban, which also prohibits smoking within 15 feet of the restaurant and bar entrances, said the measure was unnecessary because 83 percent of the county's eating and drinking establishments already prohibit smoking.