ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers introduced bills Tuesday to ban smoking in most public places in Maryland for the fourth consecutive year, saying this is their best chance yet to succeed.
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, and Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, called a Tuesday news conference to promote the measures to ban smoking in all state bars and restaurants.
Because of mounting scientific evidence about the dangers of secondhand smoke, new data from a Gonzalez Research and Marketing Strategies survey and new laws banning smoking in Italian and Irish bars, they are confident the ban will pass this year.
“There’s no justification any more” to oppose the ban, Frush said. “It’s just a matter of when, and we think when is now.”
Representatives of Smoke Free Maryland joined Frush and Ruben to announce the findings of the survey, which shows 63 percent of Marylanders favor a ban.
According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, secondhand smoke kills 1,000 people annually in Maryland.
The dangers of secondhand smoke also harm bar staff and prevent many people from going to bars and restaurants, Ruben said.
The survey backed her up. It found that 85 percent of Marylanders do not smoke and 19 percent would frequent bars more often if they were all smoke-free.
Yet the survey also found that 10 percent of Marylanders would go to bars less often if they were smoke-free.
Opponents of a smoking ban contend it would hurt the hospitality business, especially in areas close to the state line. They point to Montgomery County, which banned smoking in bars and restaurants in October 2003.
According to Melvin Thompson, vice president of government relations for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, five county bars have closed since then primarily because of the smoking ban.
Another popular Bethesda bar, Flanagan’s, is considering closing after 20 years on Old Georgetown Road, because its sales have declined 30 percent since the ban went into effect, said manager Patrick McDonagh.
McDonagh said many of his former customers have told him they have eschewed Flanagan’s to go to bars in Washington, D.C., just two miles south, so they can smoke.
Restaurant and bar owners in Maryland border towns fear they’ll lose business for the same reason. Seven states have banned smoking in bars, including New York and Connecticut, but Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia have not.
“I really hope this doesn’t happen,” said Brian Olinger, assistant general manager at Brewski’s Sports Bar in Cumberland, which is right across the bridge from bars in Ridgeley, W.Va. “For small bars and restaurants, I just don’t see how that can help us.”
Thompson called smoking ban proponents’ data “senseless babble” because of their research methods and noted that they are not generally customers of bars that allow smoking.
“People who know nothing about running a restaurant business should not be setting restaurant business policies,” he said. “Certainly there are concerns about secondhand smoke but people make choices of what establishments they want to patronize.”
They can still patronize smoking establishments because, when Maryland enacted a law in 1995 banning smoking in the work place, it exempted bars and restaurants.
Ruben began pushing to quash that exemption in 2002. That and similar bills were defeated, including a 6-5 decision by the Senate Finance Committee last year.
Ruben’s new bill has also been assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, which has the same 11 members as last year.
Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, a member of that committee, has proposed a different solution, introducing a bill in January to provide tax credits to Maryland bars and restaurants that ban smoking.
Ruben prefers to be more stringent and appeared confident in her chances — if not this year, then soon. She can lean on her experience working to pass legislation to put covers on load-carrying trucks, she said.
“It took me 15 years to get the covered trucks bill through,” she said. “Does that tell you how persistent I’m going to be?”
“I believe this is one of the most important bills that we can pass in the Legislature…It’s shameful that Maryland has not already passed this.” – 30 – CNS-2-1-05