Statewide Smoking Ban Gains Momentum, Middleton Chairs Committee

Some Business Owners Place Personal Economics Over Public's Health In Testimony To State Committee

By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Even before listening to hours of testimony for and against a proposed statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, a Senate committee appeared to have already made a decision to move the legislation forward.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles. Md. State File Photo."I don't think [the testimony] is going to change anybody's mind," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. Middleton (pictured at left), D-Charles, before the Thursday afternoon hearing. "It's time for the bill, it's a good one," he later added. "How many more years can we put this thing off?"

The key move was apparently a vote by the Baltimore City Council last month to approve a citywide smoking ban. That added momentum to the push for a statewide ban and gave it the impetus to get through Middleton's committee, the graveyard for similar legislation the past four years.

Middleton said his committee may vote as early as Friday. If the bill makes it to the Senate floor, its sponsor, Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery, said he has counted an "overwhelming majority" of senators that will vote for its passage.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign a smoking ban if it came to his desk.

Proponents of the ban have armed themselves this year with a U.S. Surgeon General's report released last summer that pointed to some of the unavoidable hazards of secondhand smoke. They said the report highlights the health and safety benefits a statewide smoking ban would have for those who currently work in smoking establishments.

"You regulate things all the time that are a danger to society, I don't know why this is different," Dana Koteen, a waiter at Roy's in Baltimore, told the committee.

Those against the ban, primarily business owners and tobacco vendors, assert that a smoking ban would hurt the smaller, neighborhood restaurants and bars that rely mostly on alcohol sales from their customers who are smokers.

"I employ 47 people locally," said Harry Cohen, owner of Firehouse Tavern in Baltimore County. "I will not be able to employ 47 people if you tell me my customers can't smoke in my bar."

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors, said that people in many parts of the state join pool or shuffleboard leagues at bars, and go there to play, drink and smoke for recreation.

"This bill will have the effect of mandating a change in those people's lives," he said.

However, it appears that most people in Maryland favor smoke-free restaurants and bars. According to a poll released in January by Gonzales Research and Marketing, 70 percent of Marylanders support a statewide smoking ban.

"Let's move in the general direction of where the public wants us to go with this legislation," Comptroller Peter Franchot said at the hearing.

The Montgomery Democrat said that after Baltimore's ban takes effect in January, more than half the state's population will be living in a smoke-free jurisdiction. Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Talbot and Charles counties all currently enforce a smoking ban in their restaurants and bars. It is unclear yet whether an amendment will be added to the bill that would follow Baltimore's lead and make exceptions for establishments that can prove they are financially affected by a smoking ban.

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