By DAVID J. SILVERMAN, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE - It's a chilly afternoon in Baltimore's Highlandtown, but inside a modest corner tavern, Rob Aull is getting hot under the collar.
"The bar is like a second home to us, a place where we can relax, listen to music, watch television, drink - and smoke cigarettes," he says. "I don't wanna go running into the street or hiding in the corner to smoke a cigarette."
But if Baltimore enacts a bill banning smoking in restaurants and bars, which was approved Monday by a key City Council committee, Aull may have no choice.
With the full council poised to pass the ban as early as next month, tavern owners fret that regular customers will either stay home or take their business less than a mile away to Baltimore County, where tavern smoking is still legal. If passed, the legislation would take effect Jan. 1 of 2008.
The bill has triggered intense opposition from the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which has worked with other groups of bar owners to defeat the proposal. On the other side, the ban's proponents, who include smoke-free advocates and other health groups, say they hope a smoke-free Baltimore will be the catalyst for a smoke-free Maryland.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland says the ban will strangle small, corner taverns like Ginger's, which Aull frequents because he works across the street. Ginger's, like dozens of other small East Baltimore taverns once known affectionately as "working man's clubs," is a narrow, unassuming place that is easy to walk by without noticing.
It is located on S. Conkling Street just off Eastern Avenue in the heart of Highlandtown, the blue collar ethnic neighborhood that epitomized industrial East Baltimore but is now feeling the effects both of gentrification from nearby Canton and an influx of Latinos from Upper Fells Point.
Bartender Deborah Bittan said places like Ginger's would have a more difficult time adjusting to new regulations because they don't have the space or resources to set up a patio or drinking area outside.
She said at least 90 percent of the bar's patrons smoke every time they visit.
One of those people is Kim Flemke, who said she would be willing to protest to prevent the ban.
"If they don't let us smoke, there's gonna be a lot of (angry) people around Highlandtown," she said. "Some people are going to just get their beer cheaper and drink at home."
Just a few blocks away sits the Knotty Pine Inn, another corner tavern where opposition is even stronger.
"Our clients have already let it be known that if they can't smoke they will buy their own beer and drink at home," said owner Fred March, who along with his wife, Alice, lives over the neighborhood pub. "I had my share of the American dream and owning my own business, and now the government wants to put a boot on my neck."
Alice March said she is already resigned to the idea that if the ban is enacted, she will have to sell the pub they have operated for the last seven years. She is on the board of directors of the Maryland State License Beverage Association, which has been fighting the ban.
Sixteen different states have banned smoking. In Maryland, Montgomery, Talbot, Howard and Prince George's counties have all enacted bans.
Smoke-free advocates say exposure to second hand smoke is unfair for employees. Their opponents say working in a bar or tavern is a choice for employees to make.
A study completed by Hugh Waters, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health in 2006, showed severe economic and health costs attributed to exposure to second hand smoke.
In Maryland, costs related to adult and childhood illness resulting from second hand smoke in 2005 totaled about $597.6 million, the study found. It also was responsible for 1,577 adult deaths and 24 child deaths, the study said. Those figures are compatible though slightly higher than national averages according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ban proponents, however, cite studies from Montgomery County and smoke-free states that show no loss of revenue for restaurants and bars.
"There's no long term loss of revenue," said Eric Gally, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. "Every study shows that within a very short period of time, everybody goes back to their regular habits and the whole thing becomes a wash."
The March's and the Restaurant Association of America say such studies are skewed because they look at the entire restaurant industry, including fast-food chains, and not small taverns like their own.
"We go to national conventions, and every single bar and restaurant owner says it has not helped but hurt their business," said Alice March said.
The Baltimore bill in its present form may provide something of a loophole to corner bars. The city health commissioner will have the authority to grant smoking waivers if applicants can prove the ban imposes an "undue financial hardship" or that "other factors exist that would render compliance unreasonable."
Even so, the March's remain unbowed in their opposition. Aside from steep fees a waiver would cost, they complain about a lack of clear guidelines in the bill and that their livelihoods may be determined by the whim of a commissioner.
Despite the trepidations of several bar owners and bar goers, such pessimism is not uniform.
Sitting down to a beer and a few cigarettes after work at the Brewer Hill Pub and Grill, Highlandtown resident Peter Bayles took a break from chatting about sports and the war in Iraq to discuss the ban, which he says will not affect the tavern business in Baltimore.
"Any way you look at it, people are still going to go to bars, they're still going to watch football, and they're still going to go out," he said. "They're not going to want to risk driving to Baltimore County or paying for a cab just so they can still smoke." He also managed to see a silver lining. "Maybe it will help me quit," he said.