Thursday, July 24, 2008

WALDORF, Md. | Almost six months after Maryland banned smoking in bars and restaurants, health officials have granted just three waivers to clubs hurt by the law.

Eleven establishments have applied for waivers, allowed under the state smoking ban that took effect in February, health officers said this week. The waiver system was established because lawmakers worried the ban would drive smoky, neighborhood bars out of business.

Three places have been cleared to let patrons light up inside until 2011. Health authorities say the low application rate shows people have accepted the ban and that it hasn’t hurt business.

But at VFW Post 8810 in Charles County, one of the three clubs allowed to resume smoking, members say so few waivers have been granted because of the red tape involved, not because business hasn’t been hurt.

“You need to be an experienced bookkeeper,” said Art Grimes, the post’s quartermaster, a position comparable to treasurer. “They have question after question after question, and you have to show them document after document.”

Mr. Grimes, 61, was holding an inch-thick stack of documents and correspondence the post had to complete to get the waiver. Though the waivers are free, Mr. Grimes said a lawyer or accountant is needed to navigate the process.

To qualify for waivers, establishments had to ban smoking for two months, then prove their food-and-beverage sales decreased at least 15 percent over the same two months in 2007 and 2006. Clubs can also apply if they installed expensive air filters to accommodate nonsmokers.

Dr. Clifford Mitchell, a physician with Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the state is thrilled so far with how well bars and restaurants are complying.

Dr. Mitchell mentioned the television drama “Mad Men,” which takes places at an advertising agency in the 1960s, with characters frequently lighting up in the office. Less than 50 years later, Dr. Mitchell noted, indoor office smoking looks bizarre.

“We try to take the long view on where we’ve come on smoking in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “You can say we really are entering a different climate in this country. You have to give the legislators and the public a great deal of credit because you’re bucking against a very addictive object and a culture than has tacitly endorsed its use.”

Perhaps not surprising, the reviews aren’t so glowing from smokers at clubs without waivers.

The ban is a “royal pain,” said Steve Thomas, of Charles County and a member of the Waldorf Elks Club Lodge, just up the street from the VFW. “They ought to just keep their nose out of it.”

Mr. Thomas must smoke in the parking lot outside his Elks Lodge and is angry that the ban affects even private groups and veterans’ clubs.

“They can’t smoke, but they can get shot at for four years,” he said, shaking his head and reaching for his pack of smokes before heading outside.

At the VFW, employees say they’re not sure how many more bars would bother seeking the waivers.

Three more waiver applications are pending, and there’s no deadline for bars to apply. But with only two other establishments in the state with indoor smoking — one in Baltimore and one in Carroll County — the Waldorf VFW expects it will remain a rare smoker-friendly club until 2011.

Already two members have transferred from other posts to take advantage of the waiver, said Mr. Grimes, who still smokes the Marlboro Reds he started puffing in the Army in the 1960s.

“That’s where most of us picked it up,” he said. “We had a saying - ‘left ease, right ease, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.’ And if you weren’t smoking, there would be a detail, picking up trash or laundry. So the next day, we were all smoking.”

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