Montgomery Council Passes Smoking Ban
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 1999; Page A1
The Montgomery County Council approved a complete ban on smoking in all county bars and restaurants yesterday despite weeks of vigorous lobbying from national tobacco groups and local restaurant owners who say the regulation threatens their livelihood.
The regulations are the toughest in the mid-Atlantic region and represent the first complete restaurant smoking ban on the East Coast outside New England. But a slim council majority softened the blow somewhat by postponing the ban until Jan. 1, 2002, when Montgomery restaurant patrons will no longer be able to smoke in bar areas or designated smoking sections in enclosed rooms as allowed now.
The council is scheduled to convene in its role as the county Board of Health on Tuesday to formally adopt the regulations, a procedural step that protects the rule from veto by the county executive and makes it binding on all cities within the county.
"Had we backed away from this, I think it would have sent a strong, negative message in the other direction," said council President Isiah Leggett (D-At Large), who unsuccessfully backed a total ban three years ago. "That is, if you can't do it in Montgomery County, where you have support and leadership on progressive matters, you won't be able to do it anywhere."
The council's 5 to 4 vote places Montgomery in the small but growing ranks of jurisdictions nationwide that have outlawed cigars and cigarettes in the once-smoky precincts of corner bars and bistros. Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) failed four years ago to impose a statewide prohibition, and an aide said yesterday that the governor would support passage of local bans rather than make another statewide effort.
So far, California has the nation's only statewide ban, the next stage in a campaign that started decades ago with small nonsmoking sections in restaurants. Blanket prohibitions have been opposed wherever they pop up by the National Smokers Alliance, an Alexandria-based group funded by tobacco companies that weighed into the Montgomery debate with cable television advertising. But bans have been imposed in a patchwork of smaller communities concerned by the hazards of secondhand smoke.
"It's steps like the ones being taken in Montgomery County that, when you add them all up, have been critical in the public health battle against smoking," said David A. Kessler, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. "We tend to focus a lot of our attention on the federal and state level. But in some ways, it's the steps being taken at the local levels that are more important."
More than half of Montgomery's 1,403 restaurants already ban smoking, but many of those that do not say their business will suffer severely and they will be forced to lay off staff if they have to turn away smoking clients. Hatched during last year's election campaign in a county famous for its activist movements, the Montgomery ban essentially extends regulations that prohibit smoking in all county workplaces except restaurants.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who was infuriated when Glendening lobbied Montgomery council members in favor of the ban, yesterday repeated his call for a less restrictive version to soften its effect on the $1.5 billion local restaurant industry. Duncan favors an exemption to allow restaurant smoking in separate, ventilated rooms, calling it a "reasonable middle ground."
Council member Steven Silverman (D-At Large) called the ban a "workers' protection bill," although bartenders and waitresses who rely on tips from smokers to make ends meet were among its most vigorous opponents.
"The council has a responsibility to protect the public health, and that must be our first responsibility," said council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville), one of three new council members who supported the ban. "Many say this will make us an island. My take is that this makes us a leader in protecting public health."
But even some ban supporters say restaurants that cater to smokers, particularly those in Bethesda, Wheaton and Silver Spring near jurisdictions where restaurant smoking is allowed, will suffer financially when the ban kicks in. Council member Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), the swing vote for the majority, warned that the ban will have "serious anti-competitive effects on many business in our community," especially on small restaurants with little to spare for advertising.
Lobbied last week by Glendening, Berlage agreed to support the measure if the ban were postponed for almost three years to give restaurants time to adjust. At his suggestion, the council approved the creation of a roughly $200,000 annual marketing fund, administered by the county Office of Economic Development, to help restaurants prepare for the new regulations.
Council member Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large) joined Leggett, Berlage, Silverman and Andrews in supporting the bill.
But the ban's opponents say it reveals Montgomery at its most paternalistic and out-of-touch, imposing rules with little regard for the consequences. Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), who opposed the ban, said the council is "rolling the dice," and restaurant owners predict a decline in gross receipts of as much as 25 percent.
"These are adults," said council member Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty). "They have a choice. That's what life is about. That's what being a grown-up is about. This is going to have a dramatic and disastrous impact on the restaurants of this county."
Council members Betty Ann Krahnke (R-Potomac-Bethesda) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) joined Dacek and Subin in voting against the ban.
Greg Hourigan, owner of two Hard Times Cafe branches in Montgomery, said the ban will drive some of his customers to the District or Prince George's County, especially those who would otherwise visit his Bethesda location.
"Why not let the market take care of itself?" Hourigan said. "It has so far. This is just forcing edicts on us."
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