The Prince George's County Council, joining a host of state and local governments, wants to tell smokers who light up in the county's bars and restaurants to take it outside.
The council introduced a bill yesterday to ban indoor smoking at bars and restaurants and fine violators $200. Eight of the council's nine members have signed on as sponsors, making approval likely.
"Smoking is a health issue, and we're trying to prevent our citizens from being affected by secondhand smoke," said council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), one of the sponsors.
A public hearing and final vote on the measure are expected before the end of the year. The law would take effect 45 days after passage.
At least five states, including New York and California, and 250 municipalities have adopted anti-smoking laws. Montgomery County passed a bill in 2003, and the District is considering a similar measure.
Anti-smoking activists said the Prince George's measure provides equal protection to workers in the county.
"White-collar workers are protected," said Bonita Pennino, government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Maryland. "I work in an office where smoking is not allowed. Why do we continue to let people smoke in restaurants and bars and continue to jeopardize the health of those workers?"
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), the only member not sponsoring the measure, said he probably will vote for it even though he doesn't think it is in the county's best interest.
"I just don't like it," said Hendershot, who is 61 and quit smoking in 1992 after suffering a stroke. He underwent coronary bypass surgery last year.
Hendershot said the market should determine whether a restaurant or bar goes smoke-free.
Fred Rosenthal, the owner of four Jasper's restaurants in Maryland, including two in Prince George's, said business has suffered at his Germantown restaurant since the smoking ban was enacted in Montgomery.
"It has cost me about $300,000 a year in late-night bar business," he said.
Instead of staying open until 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, Jasper's closes at 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Melvin Thompson, vice president for government relations at the Maryland Restaurant Association, said Prince George's could cripple its effort to lure quality sit-down restaurants to the county.
"Why would Prince George's County rush to move forward on an issue that will undoubtedly put their own restaurants and bars at an economic disadvantage?" Thompson said in written testimony to the council. "This is not the way you drive more restaurants into the county."
A representative for Peterson Cos., which is building a $2 billion waterfront development along the Potomac River in Oxon Hill, told a council committee this month that a smoking ban would hurt National Harbor's effort to attract national chain restaurants.
Still, a large body of research suggests that industry predictions of economic ruin because of smoking bans are not being borne out.
Tax receipts and dozens of studies suggest that smoking bans have had no effect on the overall health of the bar and restaurant industry, especially when implemented on a statewide level.
Although some studies indicate that restaurants and bars are hurt financially, those surveys were funded largely by the tobacco industry or its associates and often used flawed data, according to an analysis by Andrew Hyland, a research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, who examined 97 studies from 30 states and eight countries.
Nevertheless, the council amended the bill yesterday to allow a review of its impact after 18 months and to permit changes if necessary.
Hendershot said the bill, if approved, is unlikely to have a detrimental effect on chain restaurants. Instead, he said, he worries about "neighborhood bars that happen to sell food."
"If you run a neighborhood bar owner out of business, I'm not sure how much it helps to talk about it 18 months later," he said.