- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — A panel of state senators voted yesterday to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, a vote seen as a critical first step for passage of a statewide smoking ban this year.

The 6-5 vote by the Senate Finance Committee means the full Senate will vote in coming days on whether to approve the ban, long advocated by health activists but opposed by some restaurant owners. A House committee is considering a similar smoking ban, with a vote expected in that committee by midweek.

If approved, Maryland’s ban would take effect in January and ban smoking in almost all indoor public areas, including bars.

“It’s a big step forward,” said Kari Appler, director of Smoke Free Maryland.

Momentum built after last month’s decision by Baltimore to ban smoking in bars starting next year. That vote by the state’s largest city will mean that by next year, more than half of the state’s population will live in areas that don’t allow indoor smoking in public places.

Bars and restaurants already are smoke-free in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Talbot counties.

The District also bans smoking in bars and restaurants.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O’Malley has said the governor would sign a ban into law if one passed.

Senators voted for the ban only after exempting private patriotic clubs such as the American Legion. They also carved out a “hardship exemption,” where bar owners could get permission to continue to allow smoking if they could prove a ban would hurt their business.

The ban would not apply to outdoor seating areas of bars and restaurants.

Even with the exemptions, senators had a spirited debate about the idea of banning smoking statewide.

“It’s really, really going to hurt the little places,” said Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, Baltimore County Democrat. Mrs. Klausmeier voted unsuccessfully to exempt bars that don’t serve much food.

Earlier, she said of some bars, “People go there to smoke. They don’t go there to eat; they go there to smoke.”

Similar concerns brought a negative vote from Sen. George W. Della Jr., Baltimore Democrat.

“My concern is for the small proprietors. Not the chain restaurants … [but] the neighborhood taverns,” Mr. Della said.

The swing vote came from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat, who voted against a ban in previous years but changed his mind this year. Earlier, Mr. Middleton told reporters that he was persuaded to act by health arguments about the risk of secondhand smoke exposure.

Melvin Thompson, head of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said after the Senate vote that his group still opposes the idea of a statewide ban.

“We’re obviously disappointed” by the vote, he said.

Miss Appler, the Smoke Free Maryland director, said her group would argue on the House side to eliminate the hardship exemption. Talbot and Montgomery counties do not allow any exemptions, she said.

She called the Senate version a “less-than-ideal version.”

“The point of this bill is to protect every worker,” she said. Details of the hardship exemption would be left up to county health officers.

The sponsor of the ban, Sen. Rob Garagiola, said he was OK with the hardship exemptions because they are likely to be seldom invoked.

“The hardships people talk about before a bill like this passes, often they are unfounded,” said Mr. Garagiola, Montgomery County Democrat.

A separate bill that would have made it a crime to smoke with a young child in the car failed in the committee on a 7-3 vote, likely killing the idea.

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