ANNAPOLIS – Smokers may find fewer restaurants and bars to light up in under a bill in the General Assembly designed to protect workers from secondhand smoke.
Restaurants, bars and clubs have been exempt from a law against smoking in the workplace since it took effect in 1995. The proposal would end that exemption, allowing smoking in restaurants only in separate, enclosed rooms.
“There is a small group of workers who are not covered because of a deal made with the restaurant owners,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s. “That’s not fair.”
Those workers tend to be young and vulnerable to health problems related to secondhand smoke, Frush said.
“It’s a killer, and young people don’t understand that,” said Frush, whose husband died at 52 of cancer she said was exacerbated by tobacco. “They decide they are Teflon-coated; it’ll never happen to them.”
But those workers don’t want protection, said tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who has testified against the bill in the past. At past hearings, restaurant workers have not lobbied for the bill, he said.
“Not bartenders, not barmaids, not customers,” he said. “There just hasn’t been any support for it.”
Those workers often want to work in the smoking sections, said Tom Stone, a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of America, which opposes the bill.
“If people are smoking they tend to drink more, and the workers tend to get more tips,” he said.
That’s no reason to let them ruin their lungs, Frush said.
“They need the money,” she said. “They don’t consider the fact that their health may be compromised.”
Establishments without separate rooms for smokers would likely ban smoking altogether, according to legislative analysts. Smoke-free bars and restaurants would lose business, opponents said.
Supporters argue business would improve.
Both sides have studies to support their positions, Stone said.
“In all fairness,” he said, “we definitely have seen a substantial impact.”
In areas with similar laws such as California and Howard County, Md., sales receipts have gone up and bartenders’ lung function has improved, said Debra Southerland, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association.
“This is an important bill,” Southerland said. But the bill doesn’t go far enough because workers might still have to enter enclosed smoky rooms and because it does not require separate ventilation systems, she said. Her organization has asked Frush to amend the bill to ban smoking in those establishments outright, no exceptions.
The bill died in the Environmental Matters committee the past two years, but Frush said she hopes the new, nonsmoking committee chairman, John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery, will make a difference.
Bereano doubts it. Besides, he said, smoke and bars go together.
“A bar has a distinct characteristic,” he said. “It may be loud, it may be rude, it may get vulgar.
“If you go into a bar there’s going to be people smoking. If you don’t like it, don’t go into bars.”