Spencer Shimko doesn't even want to think about the possibility of a smoking ban in Howard County.
"It would totally screw up my social life," said Shimko, 26, a software engineer from Catonsville, as he puffed on a cigarette. "What's the point of going out if you can't smoke?"
It's Wing Night at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co., and Shimko is huddled around a table in the cellar-like bar with a half-dozen friends. Every Wednesday night for the past three years, the group has come to the Ellicott City bar to chow down on 35-cent chicken appetizers, drink beer and, of course, smoke.
"I have no idea what we would do if they don't let us smoke at bars anymore," he said. "I guess we'd go to Baltimore."
And if the General Assembly passes a statewide ban?
Shimko's face falls. "That's not something I can even contemplate right now," he said.
As a regional movement to ban smoking in restaurants and bars picks up steam, smokers and business owners are growing increasingly concerned about their future.
Montgomery County passed a ban in 2003, and the Prince George's County Council approved a similar measure last week. Howard County and the District are scheduled to take up similar bans in the coming months. The proposal's prospects are uncertain in Howard, but it's likely to pass in the District.
In Charles County, a new restriction on smoking in public parks took effect in March. Smoking is banned within 100 yards of organized activities in the county's 14 parks.
"Momentum is building for smoke-free measures around the region," said Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. "It's just a matter of time before there is statewide legislation to ban smoking."
Restaurant and bar owners are fighting to stop smoking bans. They say the restrictions would cripple their businesses.
"It would ruin me," said Mark Hemmis, owner of the Phoenix Emporium, a restaurant-cum-bar in Ellicott City. "I'm the precise definition of a business that would be killed by a smoking ban."
The Phoenix is about 100 yards from a bridge over the Patapsco River, which divides Howard and Baltimore counties. If smokers can't light up in his bar, Hemmis fears, they will take their business to the Trolley Stop, a restaurant-bar across the county line. It's only a two-minute walk from one bar to the other.
"Beer and cigarettes go together," said Ellen Shapiro, 23, a video store employee from Catonsville who was hanging out at the Phoenix on a recent night. "Why would we keep coming here if we can't smoke?"
Other Phoenix regulars said a smoking ban would prompt them to give up the bar scene.
"It's already so expensive to go out and drink in the first place," said Jennifer Dibble, 23, a graphic design student from Ellicott City. A pack of light cigarettes lay in front of her. "Why wouldn't you just grab a six-pack and stay at home, where you can smoke?"
Anti-smoking advocates say research from jurisdictions that have banned smoking proves that such measures do not harm the hospitality industry. A report released last month by the Montgomery County Council showed that the county's smoking ban has had no significant effect on restaurant revenue and employment.
"People in Montgomery continue to go out and eat and drink as they always have," said County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who sponsored Montgomery's smoke-free law.
The hospitality industry disputes those figures and says businesses -- especially small family-owned restaurants and bars -- have suffered. The ban has been a factor in the closing of some businesses, hospitality officials said.
Claude Andersen, director of operations for Clyde's Restaurant Group, which owns a dozen establishments in the Washington region, said sales at the company's Montgomery location, in Chevy Chase, have dropped since the ban went into effect. He said several bartenders left after the ban because they could not make enough money from tips.
"It was even more devastating than we thought it would be," Andersen said.
Restaurant and bar owners in Howard are particularly angry about a potential ban. Many spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with a 1996 law that banned smoking except in separately ventilated areas.
"We went out and spent $350,000 to comply with the law, and now they're saying it's not good enough," said Timothy Kendzierski, co-owner of the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. "It's just not fair."
Proponents of smoking bans, though, say financial concerns cannot trump the serious health threat tobacco smoke poses to patrons and employees.
"In my mind, it's just a public health issue," said Howard County Council member Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia). "We have to do the right thing here."
But at least two members of the five-person council oppose an absolute ban. Council member David A. Rakes (D-East Columbia) is drafting a smoke-free bill that would exempt 63 restaurants and bars that have separate smoking areas. Council member Charles C. Feaga (R-West County) said he would support the measure.
Rakes said the proposal is a fair way to deal with the business community. Besides, he said, as more nonsmokers move to the area, increasing numbers of establishments will voluntarily ban smoking.
"I think the smoking problem will take care of itself in the next decade," he said.
Shawn Lynch isn't so sure. As he sat in a miasma of smoke at the Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. on a recent night, the 32-year-old medical administrator said the government would never be able to eliminate smoking. Between sips of whiskey and puffs on an expensive cigar, Lynch predicted that any smoking ban ultimately would fail.
"It's like going back to Prohibition," he said. "And we know how well that worked."