In meetings with business owners and health advocates, County Executive James N. Robey (D) is weighing the possibility of introducing legislation that would ban smoking in Howard's restaurants and bars.

Anti-smoking activists are pushing for a statewide ban, and Howard and some other jurisdictions are considering their own legislation. Montgomery and Talbot counties have enacted smoking bans in restaurants and bars.

Such a measure is not a new idea for Robey.

"It has been of interest to the executive for years," said Victoria Goodman, county spokeswoman. "For him it is a public health issue."

Evidence of the danger of secondhand smoke continues to grow, but there is resistance to a ban, she said.

"We are sensitive to the business community's anxiety at the mere mention of a smoking ban," Goodman said. "That is the greatest stumbling point."

County officials are hearing from restaurant owners who say they have gone to great expense in creating separate smoking and non-smoking areas to conform with a law adopted in the mid-1990s. They worry that an all-out ban would cost them customers.

A representative of the Restaurant Association of Maryland said this week that the group would be strongly opposed to "any efforts to further restrict smoking in Howard County," especially because businesses made efforts to comply with regulations.

"Anything more at this point would be a slap in the face to these businesses," said Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of government relations for the association.

Kari Appler, executive director of Smoke Free Maryland, said, "In the absence of statewide action, it's local officials' duty to protect their workers."

Appler said there is evidence that local smoking bans enacted in communities outside Maryland did not have a negative economic impact. As a Howard resident, she would welcome such a ban soon, she said.

Secondhand smoke exposure is the third leading cause of preventable death, killing an estimated 1,000 Marylanders a year, according to the Smoke Free Maryland coalition. More than 180 jurisdictions nationwide, including nine states, have passed smoke-free bar and restaurant laws, according to the organization's Web site.

Guy Guzzone, chairman of the Howard County Council, said he would prefer a statewide ban, but that he was "prepared to hear whatever proposal the administration might come forward with."

Restaurant and bar workers "are facing an occupational health issue," he said.

Guzzone (D-Southeast) said he believed it would be fair to phase in a ban, giving bars and restaurants additional time and notice to change their public seating areas.