Opponents of legislation to ban smoking in grocery stores in the state told a House panel last week that Maryland should not mandate such restrictions and should leave them up to counties and local jurisdictions.

But most members of the House Environmental Matters Committee were not swayed by the testimony of lobbyists from the Mid-Atlantic Food Dealers Association, the Alcohol Institute and the Maryland Farm Bureau.

Del. Judith Toth (D-Montgomery) said that her county's prohibition on smoking in grocery stores was working effectively and was supported by grocery store owners.

"The stores are cleaner now. And the managers have told me they don't have to worry about cleaning up after cigarette butts and ashes," she said. "They don't have to worry about the particular residue of cigarette smoke that collects on vegetables."

Toth made her comments to Robert McKinney, of the food dealers group, who testified that the law would be unenforceable.

"This is going to be a low priority for police," McKinney said. "Our fear is that managers and owners of stores will have to become caretakers of enforcement.

"Why put that manager in jeopardy of breaking the law?" he asked.

"It will save them a heck of a lot of money," Toth answered. "They won't have to clean up or throw out any food that's been around the smoke. Would you eat somebody else's dirt on your vegetables or meat?"

The bill, sponsored by Del. John Arnick (D-Baltimore County), would prohibit customers from smoking or carrying lighted tobacco products in food stores. Violators would be fined $25. The bill would allow people to smoke in restaurants and bars that are housed in grocery establishments, however, and it would allow employes to smoke in designated areas.

Montgomery, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Howard counties and the city of Frederick have such laws on their books.

Del. Virginia Thomas (D-Prince George's) asked Jack Miller of the Maryland Farm Bureau whether a compromise could not be reached, although she did not specify an alternative law.

Miller, pointing out that tobacco is the third largest crop in the state and that the industry was in jeopardy from a recent drought, said farmers were afraid to back antismoking proposals that could put an end to their livelihood.

"Their fear is so deep," Miller said. "The Maryland farming community depends heavily on tobacco. But I'll ask them about it a compromise proposal ."