BALTIMORE – As Baltimore prepares to consider a contentious city-wide smoking ban, two city restaurant and bar owners joined a host of clean indoor air advocates Wednesday in urging Baltimore to follow the smoke-free lead of four other counties.
The City Council is scheduled to hold a hearing in two weeks on a bill that would prohibit smoking in all restaurants and bars, the only workplaces where employees are not protected from second-hand smoke by statute.
But the smoking ban, first introduced in Baltimore in March 2005, has met fierce opposition from the Restaurant Association of Maryland (RAM). The organization says a ban would unduly harm small neighborhood bars and taverns, many of which border Baltimore County, where smoking is permitted.
“Over the years working in bars and restaurants, I have watched friends die from cigarette smoking,” said Timothy Dean, owner of the Timothy Dean Bistro in Fells Point, the site of Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s absurd that all employees in Maryland are protected from secondhand smoke except for our industry’s employees.”
Other speakers included Ken Horseman, owner of the forthcoming Illusions Bar in Federal Hill; Dana Koteen, a local bartender; Jonathan M. Samet, chair of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health; Martin P. Wasserman, executive director of the Maryland State Medical Society; Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran, who sponsored the smoking bill; and Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris, Sr., who cosponsored the bill.
To smoking ban activists, the press conference was an opportunity to mobilize public support for the bill and to display support from at least some in the business community, normally not their allies.
“This was a shout out for civic advocacy and a demonstration to the City Council that there are lots of businesses that don’t agree with RAM’s position,” said Susan O’Brien, Clean Indoor Air Campaign Director, American Cancer Society, describing the press conference.
Ban proponents say they are fighting for employees who are exposed to dangerous second-hand smoke. Second-hand smoke kills 53,000 non-smokers each year, including 1,000 Marylanders, according to the American Cancer Society.
Curran, a former smoker, also argued that working an eight-hour shift in a smoky bar or restaurant is tantamount to smoking 16 cigarettes.
But just a couple blocks from Dean’s restaurant sits Max’s Taphouse, where opposition to Curran’s bill could not be stiffer. Owner Ron Furman says the ordinance would hurt business at “Ma and Pa” type bars and restaurants, not those in what he called “Yuppyland.”
“The bill is designed to save my employees from the ‘dreaded effects’ of second hand smoke,” he said, mocking his anti-smoking opponents.
“I’ve talked to every one of them,” he said. “They say, ‘This is the career we chose. We love what we do. We’re scared to death that by passing this bill, you’re gonna hurt our income and the way we are making a living. And, we accept all the risk that comes with it.'”
Supporters of the ban say they have evidence from places like New York and Montgomery County that disproves the argument that smoking bans hurt business in bars and restaurants.
But Melvin R. Thompson, vice president for government relations at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, disputes the evidence. He said that the studies, which detail revenues before and after the ban, include aggregate data from the entire industry, including fast-food restaurants.
He says there are numerous examples of bars that have gone under because patrons – even non-smokers – are willing to travel to different areas “to be where all the action is.”
One person who says he is willing to brave the potential economic impact is Tony Norris, owner of Fells Point’s legendary Bertha’s restaurant, which beginning Nov. 1 will go smoke-free.
‘I can’t even go into work myself because it makes me so sick,” he said. “I’m worried somewhat, but I just feel that this is something that has got to be done.”
Speakers at the press conference hoped that Baltimore would seize some of the momentum in the wake of smoking bans in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County and Talbot County. Fourteen other states have adopted bans as well.
Despite the opposition of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich to a statewide ban, Curran said the ban’s enactment in Baltimore would be a catalyst for a state ban. “History is on the side of the big cities passing bans and the states usually following,” he said, noting as examples New York City and Boston.