The Prince George's County Council voted unanimously yesterday to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, joining a regional movement that could soon make dining and drinking a smoke-free experience in the District and its most populous Maryland suburbs.
With the vote, Prince George's becomes Maryland's third county -- joining Montgomery and Talbot -- to pass such a ban. Howard County and the District will take up similar measures in the next few weeks. Proponents say yesterday's action could be a "tipping point" in the movement to secure passage of a statewide ban when the General Assembly reconvenes next year.
At least seven states, including California, New York and Delaware, and 180 localities prohibit smoking in bars and restaurants.
As in other jurisdictions, concerns over the dangers of secondhand smoke in public places won out over concerns that a ban would financially harm the hospitality industry.
"The public's health is paramount for the council," declared council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) while casting his vote, moments before the audience in the council hearing room burst into applause and cheers.
In 1995, Maryland adopted prohibitions against smoking in indoor workplaces, but lawmakers exempted restaurants and bars. Anti-smoking advocates said yesterday's action, by one of the state's largest jurisdictions, could build momentum to persuade state legislators to remove the exemption.
"It's definitely encouraging," said Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition. "I'm fairly certain that the majority of state legislators would support this if given the opportunity."
"It will have a far-reaching impact on protecting the health and lives of thousands of Prince George's County residents," said John O'Hara, president of the Maryland Group Against Smokers' Pollution.
Tobacco industry officials and some restaurant owners denounced the legislation as unfair to hundreds of businesses -- and vowed to take the fight to localities considering similar actions.
"The passage of this legislation is a great discriminatory act," said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist with the Maryland Association of Candy and Tobacco Distributors. "It's going to hurt Prince George's County. It's a very sad day."
He later added, "We're going to fight them in all of the other jurisdictions. It's not over with, at least not in my mind."
The measure, which takes effect in 45 days, calls for bar and restaurant owners to publicly display signs announcing the ban and informing violators that they are subject to a $200 fine. Owners and managers who allow smoking in an establishment face a $1,000 fine. Private clubs such as Elks lodges and VFW halls are exempt from the law, as is a cigar lounge at FedEx Field.
Council members said they would revisit the legislation in 18 months to determine whether there has been any negative impact on businesses in the county.
At S&J Restaurant in Riverdale Park, owner Steve Schmidlin, 52, is worried. He attracts a largely blue-collar clientele from the neighborhood that likes to smoke while indulging in a mug of beer. He gathered 266 signatures from his patrons on a petition opposing the legislation.
"My biggest fear is that my customers are going to go to the clubs," said Schmidlin, estimating that 80 percent of his customers smoke.
Anti-smoking advocates, in testimony before the council yesterday, said smoking bans do not harm bars and restaurants. Some noted a report released last month by Montgomery that showed the county's smoking ban -- enacted in 2003 -- as having no significant impact on restaurant revenue or employment.
The results are similar in Talbot, which adopted its ban last year, said Janet Pfeffer, a community leader. She said there was an initial dip, when some restaurants suffered a loss of customers, but now business is thriving.
"For the past six months, our revenues have been up and higher than before the ban," she told the council.
Schmidlin said the county should have asked owners to put up signs declaring their establishments as smoke-free or smoking. This way, people could decide whether they wanted to go there, he said.
"I know that smoking is bad. Still, people should be able to make their own choice," he said.
For many residents at the hearing, a smoking ban was a critical decision -- not just for them, but also for future generations. Some brought their grandchildren. Others talked about relatives lost to cancer and smoking-related illnesses.
"This legislation will be a benefit for future generations," Leo Bruso, who lived in Prince George's for 35 years, told the council. Then, he played a recording of a coughing man.
"Cough. Cough. No smoking," it droned. "Cough. Cough. No smoking."