ANNAPOLIS – Despite defeats of similar legislation in three previous attempts, anti-smoking advocates will once again introduce a bill to ban smoking in all Maryland restaurants and bars.
“For the health of all Marylanders, we must pass this Clean Air act,” said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D – Montgomery, who announced at a press conference Wednesday that she and Delegate Barbara A. Frush, D – Prince George’s, would once again introduce legislation that has in the past provoked heated opposition from bar and tavern owners.
Though the legislation has traditionally had difficulty making it out of the Senate Finance Committee, there are signs that this year may be different.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D – Charles, the finance committee chair and a past opponent of the measure, said he thinks the bill has a better chance of being approved this time around.
“Every year this thing gets stronger and stronger,” he said.
Middleton, who has not yet decided how he will vote on the bill, said he will let the House move the bill first, in the hopes that the different approach could result in a successful compromise.
Ruben stressed the bill would improve the health of employees in restaurants and bars. She said there is a “double standard” between their working conditions and the working conditions of other types of employees in the state.
However, opponents of the smoking ban believe the issue of employee health is merely a distraction used by the bill’s supporters.
“The issue is not about employees,” said Melvin Thompson, a spokesman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. “The employees are being used as political pawns by folks on the other side who want to use government to interfere with customer choice, employee decisions about where they want to work and the free market system.”
Thompson said he fears that a smoking ban would drive business away from bars and restaurants in Maryland.
Anticipating these charges, Ruben pointed to a University of Maryland study that found countywide smoking bans in Maryland had not greatly affected the income of bars and restaurants.
“We found that there was very little change in the tax revenues as a result of the ban, even in restaurants with liquor licenses,” said William N. Evans, a University of Maryland professor who conducted the study.
Thompson remained unconvinced, pointing out that restaurants that already had smoking bans were included in the study along with those which were forced to change.
“Their claims that smoking bans don’t hurt restaurants and bars are truly bogus,” Thompson said. “If smoking bans did not hurt smaller restaurants and bars, we would not be fighting this issue.”
His skepticism was echoed by Middleton, who said he had spoken to bar owners whose businesses were hurt by smoking bans and he believed the University of Maryland study was not “the whole story.”
Evans defended his work, saying opponents of smoking bans “like to comment about these studies, but they really don’t read them.”
The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association have all expressed their support of the bill.
Sen. J. Robert Hooper, R – Harford, conceded that a smoking ban was “likely a good idea for most people,” but also expressed concern over the impact such legislation could have on small businesses.
Hooper pointed out that some businesses have invested a lot of money in ventilation systems to minimize the effect of second-hand smoke and said these good-faith efforts would be spoiled by a smoking ban.
Hooper has voted against previous smoking bans in the Senate Finance committee and said he is likely to oppose this one as well. “I wouldn’t want to face anybody that I just helped put out of business,” Hooper said.