- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

BALTIMORE — The ashtrays are filling up by midafternoon at the Mount Royal Tavern, and bartender Mick King is steamed about recent talk that he may soon be unable to light up while he works.

“Why don’t they just ban beer in bars?” Mr. King scoffed. “Ninety-five percent of my clientele smokes. And if they didn’t allow smoke, I wouldn’t have any customers.”

That worry — that smoking bans would harm small businesses such as the Mount Royal — explains why bars and restaurants are partly exempt from smoking bans that govern most workplaces in Maryland.

Mr. King and his customers, smokers and nonsmokers, doubt there’d ever be a complete smoking ban in bars. “What is this, a police state?” asked Eaton Lloyd, who kept a pack of Marlboro Lights next to his beer on the bar.

In Annapolis, lawmakers disagree. They don’t all think a smoking ban is a good thing, but even opponents are pretty sure it’ll come. Maybe even this year. “It’ll happen,” said Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley. Mr. Brinkley, Frederick Republican, opposes a statewide ban. “I think it’s inevitable,” he said.

Maryland would join the District and more than a dozen states that ban smoking in bars and restaurants under a bill pending in the legislature. The bill has been proposed for at least three years. It hasn’t come to a vote yet this year, but supporters of a statewide ban hope this is the year it will pass.

Delegate Barbara Frush, sponsor of the bill in the House, was emphatic about whether Maryland will eventually ban smoking in bars: “Absolutely,” she said.

Mrs. Frush, Prince George’s Democrat, brushed aside concerns that lawmakers would side with the restaurant and bar owners who oppose a ban. “It’s difficult to understand why anybody would put the bottom line above their constituents’ health,” she said.

Not all are certain a ban will pass this year, though. The legislature’s ruling Democrats — Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Calvert and Prince George’s Democrat, and House Speaker Michael Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat — professed support for a ban but didn’t say it would happen this year.

“We’ll see,” Mr. Busch said.

That uncertainty has anti-smoking activists as frustrated as the bartenders at the Mount Royal Tavern. Dozens of lawmakers have signed on to the smoking-ban bills, but there’s little word when they may become law, said Kari Appler, director of Smoke Free Maryland.

“We don’t have a lack of support. What we have right now is a lack of leadership,” she said.

Already bars and restaurants are smoke-free in four counties — Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Talbot — but it appears lawmakers are waiting for the state’s biggest city to pull the trigger on a ban. Baltimore officials are considering a ban and may vote on it by the end of the month, which may explain why state hearings on the question haven’t even been scheduled yet.

“I think what’s going on in Baltimore city will have big ramifications” on a state ban, said Delegate Derrick Davis, Prince George’s Democrat, who leads a committee in the House where a smoking ban awaits consideration.

Baltimore is important because if a ban is passed there, more than half the state’s population will live in smoke-free areas. Opposition within the restaurant industry may soften if there’s a patchwork of smoking bans across the state.

In Annapolis, lawmakers on both sides say the question of a statewide smoking ban isn’t if the state will adopt one, but when.

“Somehow or other we have to come to a solution on this,” said state Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, Baltimore County Democrat, who proposed a tax incentive instead of a ban for restaurants that choose to go smoke-free. “I think eventually we’ll have it. But now, every county is just taking it upon themselves and doing it. So one way or the other, the whole state will have a smoking ban.”

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