By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Proponents of a ban on smoking in restaurants and taverns in Maryland pressed their cause for the fifth straight year on Thursday, this time confident that they have the necessary votes in the General Assembly and hopeful of winning the new governor's approval.
"I think if we get it on [Gov.-elect Martin] O'Malley's desk, he's going to sign it," Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said at a press conference outside the State House.
The gathering of about 50 supporters included legislators, county councilmen and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, who Wednesday proposed a smoking ban in his own county. Advocates of the bill, which is due to be introduced in the House next week, emphasized the health hazards and effects of secondhand smoke to not only restaurant patrons but to the waiters and waitresses.
"This is unfair and unjust," said Dana Koteen, a waiter at Roy's in Baltimore, referring to the 1994 law which bans smoking in all workplaces except for restaurants and bars. "We have a right to work in a safe and healthy environment," he added later.
Aides to O'Malley said the governor-elect has not yet committed himself to signing a statewide ban, but believes health professionals have made a solid case that the smoking ban improves air quality and does not negatively impact businesses.
While mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley opposed a citywide ban on the grounds that bar patrons would shift their business to nearby counties.
"He will keep an open mind and will look forward to working with the legislature on this and many other issues," said Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's spokesman.
Opponents of the bill, including the Restaurant Association of Maryland, claim that the ban negatively impacts restaurants and bars because it reduces revenues from alcohol sales.
"We're in the business to make money like anyone else, and those customers who are smokers also tend to be drinkers," said Melvin Thompson, a spokesman for RAM. "When you loose those lucrative alcohol profits, it causes business to cut back on hours, lose employees, and perhaps go out of business altogether."
Thompson also dismissed an assertion made by Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews at the press conference that in the three years since Montgomery County's smoking ban, restaurant revenues have actually increased. "No one claims a cause-and-effect, but the fact is that restaurants continue to thrive," Andrews said.
Thompson claims that 77 percent of the restaurants in Montgomery County had already elected to go smoke-free prior to the county-wide ban, and that Andrews' numbers were not a good representation of the small number of restaurants in the county that were affected by the ban.
"Obviously he's aggregating the numbers to his advantage," Thompson said.
But Thompson would not respond to the U.S. Surgeon General's report released last summer that pointed to some of the unavoidable hazards of secondhand smoke. Proponents of the bill are using this report to highlight the health and safety benefits a state-wide smoking ban would have for those who currently work in smoking establishments.
"To me the facts are indisputable," said Garagiola. "Secondhand smoke causes cancer, heart disease and death in non-smokers."
The senator also added that separate ventilation systems don't reduce exposure to secondhand smoke, and that Washington, five Maryland counties, 16 states, Ireland and Italy had all approved smoking bans without adverse economic effects.
"Those arguments about the economic aspect ring hollow," he said.
Another tobacco-related issue coming up this session, the proposed $1-a-pack cigarette tax increase to help fund health care in the state, does not seem to have as much support behind it in either the legislative or executive branches.
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, has already voiced his disapproval of the tax. O'Malley has said that cigarette taxes are a declining source of revenue and he is "not inclined" to support the bill, according to his spokesman. "I think we need to be very careful that we're not overestimating dollars," said Garagiola, who supports the tax but acknowledges that it may not be a reliable source of revenue.