Despite a wave of success on the local level, the effort to extend a restaurant smoking ban across Maryland faces a tough road as tobacco lobbyists and health groups rev up sophisticated campaigns to influence the measure, lawmakers say.
Both the smoking ban and a proposed increase in the tobacco tax face stiff opposition and will find significant resistance from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and Democrats who preside over the Senate and House. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he had little appetite for a tax increase of any kind and cited his upbringing surrounded by tobacco fields as the reason he won't back a smoking ban.
"I'm going to vote against it," said Miller, who represents parts of Prince George's and Calvert counties. "I don't like smoke, but I respect the right of my constituents to eat where they want and the right of restaurant owners to create the kind of ambiance they'd like for their customers."
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said he sees no reason to tax smokers again -- the state legislature has raised the cigarette levy twice in the past six years. And he wonders whether it wouldn't be best to let each of the state's jurisdictions decide whether to allow smoking in restaurants -- Montgomery, Talbot and, most recently, Prince George's counties have enacted bans.
"This might be better off handled on the local level," Busch said.
Howard County will consider a smoking ban today, but a majority of County Council members have said they will not support the measure. The county already limits smoking to areas of restaurants and bars that have separate ventilation.
Melvin Thompson, a lobbyist for restaurant and bar owners across the state, said he doesn't believe advocates for a statewide ban have made much progress since last session, despite the local victories.
"We don't think the dynamics have shifted very much at all," Thompson said.
But even in the face of powerful early opposition, neither proposal should be written off, veterans of the tobacco wars in Annapolis said last week.
Lobbyists for health groups, including the nation's leading lung, heart and cancer associations, said they are planning to make the restaurant smoking ban a top legislative priority in the coming session. Health care advocates, meanwhile, are getting behind a proposal to increase the state tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack to pay for an expansion of health care for the poor.
At least seven states -- including California, New York and Delaware -- and 180 localities mandate smoke-free bars and restaurants.
Supporters of the tax increase produced numerous examples of Miller voicing strong public opposition to a higher tobacco tax in the months preceding the passage of a 30-cent increase in 1999, to 66 cents, and again in 2002 -- an election year -- when the tax went up to $1 a pack.
"In almost every case where we were successful, there was always initial resistance," said U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who championed the tax measures while serving in the Maryland Senate.
Success, Van Hollen said, required persistent and sophisticated lobbying. Such a campaign is in the works, said James Browning, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society. For instance, Browning said he has hired an organizer to rally support from restaurant and bar employees who work in Baltimore's Canton and Fells Point neighborhoods. Those are the areas represented by Del. Peter A. Hammen (D), who chairs the House committee that will consider the smoking ban legislation.
Vincent DeMarco, who as president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative is organizing the effort to raise the cigarette tax, said his group has financed independent polling that shows voter reactions to the $1-per-pack tax increase, broken down by key legislative districts.
In the Charles County district of Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D), whose views could prove pivotal, 65 percent of respondents supported the measure, and 31 percent opposed it, according to the survey by Potomac Inc., which had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Smoke Free Maryland paid for a question on the same poll asking about the smoking ban. It shows 64 percent of voters in Middleton's district support it.
Many believe Middleton's views could well determine the fate of one or both bills. The smoking ban bill was defeated last year on a 5 to 5 vote in the Senate Finance Committee, which Middleton chairs. He abstained.
Middleton said in an interview that although he views a tax increase as unlikely, he is keeping an open mind about whether to provide the sixth vote that would be needed to send the smoking ban proposal to the floor this session.
He wouldn't tip his hand, other than to say he's been impressed by some of the activities of anti-smoking advocates in his county. "I think it's only a matter of time before you see a more effective push," he said.