ANNAPOLIS – Business owners would not lose money if smoking were banned in their taverns, bars and clubs, supporters of an anti-tobacco proposal told lawmakers Thursday.
The current law – allowing smoking in bars and requiring a separate, enclosed smoking room for restaurants — works fine, responded restaurant and hotel lobbyists. Smokers have a right to accommodation at their businesses, too, they told the House Environmental Matters Committee.
“It’s more than the economics,” said Champe McColloch, a representative of the Maryland Hotel and Lodging Association. “We are a hospitable industry. We want to accommodate all of our patrons.”
At issue is a bill designed to protect restaurant and bar workers from the dangers of secondhand smoke. Currently, restaurants, bars and taverns are exempt from a 1995 law against smoking in the workplace.
The proposal would end that exemption, allowing smoking in restaurants only in the separate, enclosed rooms. However, Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, introduced an amendment Thursday to out-right prohibit smoking in those businesses.
Howard County imposed such a ban in 1994. And despite arguments that restaurants and bars would lose money, the county’s food and beverage tax revenue grew by 50.4 percent last year, said C. Vernon Gray of the Howard County Council.
“I know of no business in Howard County that has gone under or closed” because of the smoking ban, Gray said.
Still, many restaurant and bar owners have gone beyond what was required of them by installing expensive ventilation systems, said Tom Stone, a lobbyist for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which represents 3,000 establishments.
Responding to a figure that 1,000 Maryland residents die of secondhand smoke each year, McColloch wondered how many worked at restaurants, hotels or bars. “I don’t know if their spouses are smokers and the secondhand smoke comes from there,” he said.
The smoking ban proposal was not the only anti-tobacco bill considered Thursday by the committee. The other would prohibit store retailers from displaying or storing cigarettes in a place that’s easily accessible to minors.
Both bills did not make it out of the committee last year.
The proposal would discourage children from stealing cigarettes that are readily available on store counters, said Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery. Buying a cigarette or other tobacco product would require the assistance of a store employee, she said.
Currently, Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard and Talbot counties, and Baltimore have similar regulations.
Often, retailers receive incentives for displaying cigarettes near candy, and they are reimbursed full price for stolen tobacco products, Petzold said. That perpetuates the tobacco industry’s strategy to lure underage smokers, she said.
Joyce Dantzler, of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, supported the bill, saying a 2000 survey found that 21.4 percent of Maryland middle and high school students use some sort of tobacco product. It also found 14 percent of middle school students either stole cigarettes from stores or family members.
The proposal, however, is misguided because the real issue is theft, said Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist representing convenience store chain 7-Eleven.
Store owners are not reimbursed for stolen items, and retailers are working to prevent cigarette sales to minors, Valentino said.
“Their aim is (preventing) youth tobacco. We agree,” said Jeff Zellman, a lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association. “We keep our products away and watch our sales.”