The growing debate over the rights of smokers versus nonsmokers heated up in Prince George's County last week when members of the County Council Human Relations Committee gathered to discuss a tough new bill on smoking.
The bill, which would impose strict regulations on smoking in the work place, retail stores, enclosed shopping malls, banks, restaurants, cafeterias, hotels and motels, hospitals, bowling alleys and other "public places," would permit smoking in certain restricted areas and forbid it entirely in others. Anyone refusing to comply with a request to stop smoking in a non-smoking area would be fined $25.
Normally, work sessions such as the one held by the HRC last week are just that - the staff and council review legislation, carefully examining the proposals for legal and political pitfalls, and, if necessary, recommending amendments. Although spokesmen from the community and from industry often attend, the sessions usually are orderly, slightly clinical and often boring.
Not so the work session on the "clean air act." Eighteen speaking signed up to tell their views to the six-member HRC. According to both council members and staff, the session took on the appearance of a heated public hearing with speaker after speaker forcefully opposing or supporting the bill.
Cheers and accolades for the bill came from non-smokers and ex-smokers, but smokers, restauranteurs, hotel operators and tobacco growers called the bill "unreasonable." Spokesmen for the police and health departments said they couldn't enforce the bill and the county would be put in an "untenable" position if arrests are made.
James Repace, a physicist and member of Bowie GASP (Group Against Smokers' Pollution), brought a special portable meter, which registered the tar content in a room, and statistics, which he obtained from the matter, to support GASp's contention that smoke from other people's cigarettes are as harmful to the non-smoker as to the smoker.
"According to the state, the serious level (for air quality) is 160," Repace told the council. "During a recent week, I went to several places to measure the air. At a Big Boy in Greenbelt with two smokers, the meter registered 190 micrograms (of tar) per cubic meter. At a bowling alley with 14 smokers, it read 220; at the emergency room of Prince George's County Hospital, 260, and at the Varsity Grill, it was 750 micrograms per cubic meter.
"In comparison with readings taken outside, it is obvious the indoor air pollution is a much more serious problem," Repace said. "We have found that on a one-hour average (of smoke inhalation), anything in excess of the serious level is dangerous to your health."
Those in opposition to the bill had no quarrel with the statistics presented by Repace. Instead, they showed the committee how difficult it would be to regulate the bill and how it could effect the economics of the county.
The Maryland Hotel and Motor Inn Association opposed the bill, calling it "unduly restrictive." They said hotels and motels should be deleted from regulation. Under the bill, lobbies in hotels and motels would have to be separated into smoking and non-smoking areas.
Bob Zinsmeister from the Prince George's Chamber of Commerice said the chamber objected to the legislation's "broad brush approach. There is too much regulation of business already."
For the many tobacco growers who make their livelihoods from the rich county soil, the bill seemed an affront. John Mitchell, whose family heritage has revolved around producing the plant, said the economic hardship would be enormous on growers in the area.
Sarah Ada Koonce, a sponsor of the bill and one of five non-smoking members of the committee, said she doesn't think the growers would lose economically because the bill sets no limits on production. Koonce, who said she doesn't "oppose smoking but would just like to see the rights of non-smokers protected," said she expects "a weaker bill" as a result of the heavy opposition voiced at the work session.
"I've been approached by so many people to help protect (non-smokers), but I see we'll just have to come up with a liveable solution for all the county residents. I could like with a weaker bill, it might have been too strong as it was written."
Council staff members said changes that will be made in the bill because of the work session will make it less specific; for example, said one staff member, "We won't define public places, for starters."
The council will hold one more work session, probably on a smaller scale, before the bill goes back to the full council for introduction, according to staff members. A public hearing must be held before the bill can be adopted.
"The bill certainly is not in final form," said Francis Francois, the only smoker (of a pipe) on the Human Resources Committee. "But we have before us a reasonable appraoch that protects the rights of non-smokers to clean air while they eat and where they seek entertainment. At the same time, the bill guards the privileges of smokers to enjoy an after-dinner cigarette or cigar just as they always have done."