- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — A statewide smoking ban that would force all bars to go smoke-free cruised through the Maryland legislature yesterday and is close to the governor’s desk.

However, lawmakers still have to work out whether the ban should apply to private nonprofit clubs.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the ban yesterday morning after a brief debate, and the House did the same later in the day. The ban would snuff out smoking in all bars and restaurants by next year; however, bars could apply for a waiver if they can prove their business would suffer under a ban.

Maryland lawmakers have considered a statewide ban for several years without agreement. This year, the ban picked up speed after Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore, voted last month to bar smoking. Four counties already require smoke-free bars.

“To me it was a clear vote for public health,” said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, Montgomery Democrat, who sponsored the ban.

Lawmakers rejected two amendments that would have undone the ban.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Eastern Shore Republican who opposes a ban, tried to change the bill so that bars could still allow smoking if they posted a sign outside alerting customers if smoking were allowed. Mr. Colburn’s plan failed 30-17. One more vote is required in both chambers, possibly by Monday.

Mr. Colburn told his colleagues that people should take responsibility for secondhand smoke exposure, and that lawmakers shouldn’t meddle with smoking.

“We can’t always legislate to protect people from themselves,” Mr. Colburn said.

Later, the House soundly rejected an amendment that would have made all tobacco illegal. The amendment was seen as an attempt to derail the measure.

“If you are really, really concerned about the health of the state of Maryland, you’ll support this,” said the amendment sponsor, Delegate Joseph J. Minnick, Baltimore County Democrat. Mr. Minnick’s tobacco ban was rejected 94-38.

Lawmakers still have to iron out the difference before sending the measure to the desk of Gov. Martin O’Malley, who supports a ban. Mr. Garagiola said the two chambers would “be able to work something out” on veterans’ groups, but he didn’t say how.

“I’m confident we’re going to have a bill that protects public health,” he said.

Senators had differing opinions on how important the private group exemption was to their final votes. Sen. George C. Edwards, Western Maryland Republican and an American Legion member, has said the ban should not apply to veterans who want to smoke over sandwiches in their private clubs.

Yesterday, Mr. Edwards said that the private club exemption was important to rural areas.

“In rural parts of the state, these are sometimes the only gathering places,” he said. Talking about his local American Legion, he said, “In the town I live in, it’s the only bar.”

Most areas of the bill are similar. Both bans would take effect by the beginning of next year. Both would reduce the amount of smoking rooms allowed in hotels from 40 percent to 25 percent. Also, both would set up fines for violations, but allow bar owners to avoid fines if they take steps to prevent smoking such as removing ash trays and posting no-smoking signs.

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