Advocates Have Hope for Baltimore Ban, New Legislative Session

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

The momentum behind successful bans on smoking inside bars and restaurants in Maryland's D.C. suburbs has always stalled at the State House, where lawmakers representing tobacco farmers or Baltimore barkeeps have resisted a statewide prohibition.

But with key legislative leaders starting to warm to the idea and the departure next month of a governor opposed to a ban, health advocates say the upcoming General Assembly session could offer their best shot.

That could depend, though, on whether incoming governor Martin O'Malley (D) decides to support the measure and whether Baltimore moves ahead with its own prohibition, which stalled at a meeting last week. Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Talbot counties have bans.

As Baltimore mayor, O'Malley has said repeatedly that he prefers a state ban to a citywide approach, which opponents say would cripple the city's corner bars, sending smoking customers to establishments in neighboring counties. But O'Malley has never explicitly pledged his support for statewide legislation, which makes him a wild card in coming months. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whom O'Malley defeated last month, had publicly opposed such legislation.

"I don't plan to urge its introduction at the state level, but if a majority of legislators support it, I'm willing to consider it," O'Malley said in a brief interview last week.

The betting among health advocates is that O'Malley would not veto an anti-smoking bill that made it through both chambers of the General Assembly next year, but his evasiveness on the issue continues to be a source of frustration.

"We're happy that he prefers a statewide bill, but what we need to know is whether he supports a statewide bill," said Susan O'Brien, director of the Clean Indoor Air Campaign of the American Cancer Society, which is pushing for smoke-free bars in Baltimore and the state.

Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, said her organization "would like to see [O'Malley's] language strengthened to say he supports it. He needs to show the leadership that governors around the country have shown on this issue. This is definitely not cutting-edge legislation anymore."

In fact, 16 other states and the District have adopted bans, and that number is expected to grow as legislatures convene in the new year. Some, including New York and Massachusetts, adopted statewide bans after their largest cities prohibited smoking.

But a Baltimore smoking ban bill stalled last week in the City Council after its chief sponsor, wary of O'Malley's position on the issue, decided to delay a final vote until after O'Malley is sworn in Jan. 17, rather than risk a veto.

"I'm trying to win the issue," said Council member Robert W. Curran, who happens to be the uncle of O'Malley's wife. "I'm not going to take any chances."

A preliminary vote on the measure was pulled from the council's agenda last week, suggesting that Curran may be having trouble rounding up enough votes from the 15-member body to move the bill forward. He has vowed to keep trying.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company