Saturday, February 16, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — It was a smoky bar popular with firefighters and rescue workers, but Heroes Pub closed its doors after a statewide smoking ban took effect Feb. 1 — so the owner could have the place repainted and its grayed ceiling replaced.

“They should have done this years ago,” said pub owner Kurt Beall, who allowed smoking until last month but was happy to comply with the ban. He closed his bar for two days to repaint and change ceiling tiles, and now he says customers are back but stepping outside to smoke.

“Some people haven’t been happy about going outside to smoke, but they do it,” Mr. Beall said.

Just two weeks after Maryland’s statewide smoking ban took effect, health authorities say they’re happily surprised by a lack of complaints about the ban. Health Secretary John Colmers told a panel of lawmakers yesterday that he’s not aware of any complaints of bars or restaurants not complying with the law.

“Feb. 1 came and went and the world did not come to a crashing halt,” Mr. Colmers said. “For the most part it was successfully implemented, and I suspect there will be no great change … and business may improve.”

Mr. Colmers told reporters that while noncompliance complaints would go to local authorities, not his agency, he wasn’t aware of any problems across the state implementing the ban lawmakers approved last year. Four Maryland counties and the District already banned smoking before the statewide ban was signed into law.

“I think the world will be a better place because of it,” Mr. Colmers said of the statewide ban.

Restaurant industry officials who opposed the ban’s passage said there have been no problems with bars and restaurants not complying. The law requires them to remove ashtrays and post no-smoking signs, and they could be fined for allowing smoking. But people in the industry say it’ll be a long time before they know whether the ban is hurting business.

Melvin Thompson, vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, agreed that while the ban has been easy to implement, businesses will needs months to find out how it is affecting business.

“You have many customers who still might not be aware of the ban. So they may still be going to their favorite watering holes and stepping outside. We call the first month the adjustment period. People adjust their behavior after that,” Mr. Thompson said.

The law includes a chance for restaurants or bars hurt by the smoking ban to get temporary waivers. But first the businesses have to snuff out smoking for two months and prove to local health authorities that their receipts dropped at least 15 percent because of the ban.

Even if waivers are granted, business would be allowed to permit indoor smoking only a few more years. Mr. Thompson said it was far too soon to know how many restaurants may apply for waivers.

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