ANNAPOLIS – Over lunch in Ram’s Head of Annapolis, singer and musician Daniel Haas remembers the night he became an active supporter of a smoking ban in Maryland’s bars and taverns.
“I was playing in the basement here…and 10 guys come in with cigars,” Haas said. “They almost killed me in one night. It was brutal.”
The next day he went to Home Depot and decorated his equipment with anti-smoking signs and stickers. Still, he said, people aren’t getting the message.
“I have these giant no smoking stickers and inevitably somebody will sit right down next to me where I’m playing and they’ll have a conversation with their guests at their table,” he said. “And in order to be polite to them, they’ll turn their head and blow their smoke right at me while I’m singing.”
So on Saturday, Nov. 5, Haas and other musicians are taking the message on the road at a benefit concert for Smoke Free Maryland at (smoke-free) Dock of the Bay in Solomon’s Island.
The concert is intended to focus attention once again on the effort to expand restrictions on smoking in Maryland bars and restaurants. Statewide legislation is expected in the General Assembly this winter, but before that Prince George’s and Howard Counties are considering local bills.
Geraldine DiGiovanni-Epps, owner of Dock of the Bay, said her restaurant has been smoke-free since it opened in 1999. She said she hasn’t experienced the slow business that many predict would follow a ban on smoking if Maryland implements the Clean Indoor Air Act, which has failed in the General Assembly for the past three years.
“I think it’s better (to be smoke-free) because people linger longer…and spend money,” she said, also citing her employees’ low absentee rate.
But Fred Rosenthal, who owns the small chain of Jasper’s restaurants, is fighting the Prince George’s ban, which will be the subject of a hearing on Tuesday, because he feels that his Germantown restaurant has suffered enough and his employees petitioned him to oppose the ban.
He says his business is proof that the smoking ban hurts small, independent bars. Dinner business is booming, but “our late-night bar business all but disappeared.” He believes they would rather drive the 12 miles to Frederick than hang out in a non-smoking bar.
“Having lived through it, I can tell you it’s true,” Rosenthal said. He’s now closing early and converting bar space into banquet space.
“Maybe a Maryland ban will work. Maybe it will, but Maryland’s in a funny position” with D.C. and Virginia so close, he said. A state-wide ban could just make the Woodrow Wilson Bridge “the Golden Gate Bridge for the bars in Alexandria.”
Last week, Smoke Free Maryland released data showing that Montgomery County’s smoke free ordinance had “no impact on restaurant tax revenue” since it increased by 0.025 percent and “no impact on employment” in the county’s restaurants.
William N. Evans, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, conducted the study by comparing Montgomery to neighboring counties as well as Fairfax County in Virginia.
“The thing that is striking about this is that it’s really hard to find data that any smoking ban has done serious damage,” Evans said. He said although there are other arguments against the ban, “this one’s a loser.”
Melvin Thompson, spokesman for the Restaurant Association, said the figures were “total crap” and sent a letter to legislators explaining why there is serious damage in the eyes of restaurant owners.
Thompson wrote that Frederick and Howard Counties’ revenues increased by 6 and 7 percent respectively, showing that although Montgomery’s revenue did not fall, it was not staying on par with – and possibly losing business to – neighboring counties. He said by averaging the more prosperous counties with those that were “statistically flat,” the study skewed its results.
“If this (damage) were not true, like the other side claims, we wouldn’t spend so much time and money fighting them,” he said in an interview.
He went on in the letter to explain that Talbot County had seen an 11 percent decline in its restaurant industry since implementing a smoking ban. In other literature, the Restaurant Association said keg sales in Montgomery fell by 2,366 kegs, correlating to 300,000 servings of beer lost for bar-based restaurants.
Delegate Barbara A. Frush, D-Anne Arundel and Prince George’s, sponsored legislation in the House of Delegates in the past and plans to do so again.
“We continue to get more and more people on board,” Frush said. “This year may be our year.”
But, Haas said, he isn’t as optimistic after meeting with leaders of the Assembly.
“They all told me I don’t have a chance in hell,” he said. “It’s an election year. No one wants to touch it because it’ll affect his votes.”
So the stage is set for another legislative debate in a couple months. But, until then, Haas and his fellow musicians will take the stage on Saturday to promote smoke-free venues for their music. “I’m not opposing anyone’s right to smoke. I’m opposed to the fact that I’m not allowed to work at a place and earn money in a healthy environment,” Haas said. “If I don’t look out for myself and my band mates and my restaurant workers, no one else will.”