Future of smoking in bars cloudy
May 28, 2003
Corinne Purtill
Staff Writer

Susan Whitney/The Gazette

From left, Arlington's Dave Doherty, Wheaton's Jim Workman and Kensington's Ed Noye watch television and visit in the bar on Friday at Wheaton's Anchor Inn, where smoking is allowed. When asked what he thinks of the County Council's efforts to ban smoking in such areas, Workman said, "I'm totally against it. They give nonsmokers all the rights, and they give smokers no rights."

Council to consider another attempt to ban the practice

Not a single customer was sitting at the dark wood bar at Barnaby's pub in Wheaton, but the faint smell of cigarettes still lingered in the air.

Just before noon on Memorial Day, the sparkling glass ashtrays were empty in anticipation of the lunchtime crowd. Ceiling fans whirred slowly, circulating the heavy, smoky air that held the unmistakable scent of a bar.

For many smokers and non-smokers, that smell of tobacco in a restaurant or pub is taken for granted.

The Montgomery County Council, however, is hoping to change that. The council is awaiting a public hearing next month on a bill that would extend the countywide ban on smoking in public places to bars and restaurants, an issue that has mobilized health advocates while infuriating bar and restaurant owners.

"This isn't about vice or virtue. It's not about trying to get smokers to quit. It's about protecting non-smokers in a public place from involuntary exposure to hazardous smoke," said Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Those in the industry affected by the ban predict a much bleaker outcome.

"It's going to put us out of business," said Sara Noel, manager at the Quarry House in Silver Spring.

The bill, sponsored by Andrews and council members Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large), Mike Knapp (D-Dist. 2), George L. Leventhal (D-At large) and Thomas E. Perez (D-Dist. 5), is the council's second attempt at outlawing smoke in bars and restaurants.

In 1999, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) vetoed an identical bill introduced by Andrews and then-Council members Ike Leggett and Blair Ewing. The council then passed a health regulation, which cannot be vetoed by the county executive, declaring the ban.

The bill was quickly taken to court by representatives of several local restaurants, Andrews said. It was struck down by the Circuit Court, in a decision later upheld by the state appeals court, on the grounds that the council could not act as the county's board of health without the executive's input.

In August 2000, the council passed a measure signed by Duncan proclaiming that the council alone serves as the county's board of health. With that legal hurdle cleared, the council now believes that it will be able to proceed with the ban, Andrews said.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled June 12.

The bill, Andrews said, is a necessary step toward protecting the health of restaurant workers and patrons.

"It's important that people know that when they go into a public place, they're not subject to a dangerous condition that's completely preventable," he said.

Customers can choose,

say smoking boosters

On a cloudy Memorial Day, customers and employees in Wheaton pubs argued that those who want to avoid cigarette smoke already have to option to protect themselves -- by staying outside.

"I don't come to a bar unless I expect smoke," said Stephen Murray, a Kensington resident and customer at Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, where bartenders say the possible smoking ban is a frequent topic of discussion among patrons.

Around the bar, smokers and non-smokers said that a ban on smoking would drain money from already-hurting local businesses and intrude upon individual rights.

"I think the county's going to get hit," said bartender Frank Clyatt. He and other employees at bars close to the county's border said that their customers would flee to Prince George's County and the District of Columbia, both of which do not have smoking bans.

Leo Mathios, owner of Barnaby's, said that he expected his business to drop by 30 to 40 percent if the ban was passed. He said that many of his regulars would not want to stay long in a place if they couldn't smoke while they drank.

"Smoking goes along with drinking. Drinking is a social habit, and if smoking is bad, then why not drinking?" he said.

Other proprietors bristled at what they perceived as the county's intrusion upon their business.

"I'm totally against [the ban] and any legislation that's going to prevent me from providing a choice to my customers and running a business the way I want to," said Selby Scaggs, owner of the Anchor Inn in Wheaton.

When the ban was last up for consideration, Scaggs testified against it before council members and state legislators in Annapolis.

At Scaggs' restaurant, which has separate smoking and non-smoking dining rooms as dictated by state law, each room has its own ventilation system with air exchangers that suck up smoke and replace it with fresh air. His employees can elect not to work in the smoking room, he said.

More regulations, he said, would be an unfair intrusion on his business.

"It makes us wonder what's next," he said. "Are they going to start regulating cholesterol levels on the drawn butter that goes with my lobster tails?"

Everyone has a study

Advocates on both sides cite studies affirming or disproving the effects of second-hand smoke.

After only 30 minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke, non-smokers hearts' began to malfunction in ways similar to smokers' hearts, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The American Cancer Society claims that food service workers, who are more often exposed to smoking on the job, are 50 percent more likely to develop lung cancer than the rest of the public.

"The question is, why wouldn't you ban smoking in restaurants and bars, given the known hazards of it?" asked Larry Couch, coordinator of the Smoke Free Montgomery County Coalition.

In a position paper stating its opposition to smoking ban legislation, the Restaurant Association of Maryland argued that limited restrictions on smoking, such as maintaining separate dining rooms for smokers and the use of ventilation systems, would be sufficient to protect public health.

While some smokers said that they would take their business elsewhere if they couldn't light up in Montgomery County, others did not expect that a ban would change their ways.

"I don't like it, [but] I'd still come here," said Kevin Williams of Wheaton as he nursed a Camel at Legends Sports Lounge and Grill. "I don't think that I would consciously avoid hanging out in Montgomery County."

In Howard County, which banned smoking in bars and restaurants in 1993, revenue at those businesses rose 50.4 percent in the eight years after the ban took place. State-wide, restaurant business grew only 36.6 percent, according to testimony from a former Howard County council member posted on the Web site of the Montgomery County Community Partnership, an anti-drug non-profit organization.

Restaurateurs who have already voluntarily made their businesses smoke-free said that their policy has not hurt business.

"Lots of smoking people come here, but they just go outside," said Ananda Poojary, manager at Woodlands Restaurant in Langley Park.

"These days, there's lots of health problems going on," Poojary said. And when asked to step outside before lighting up, he continued, "people don't complain."

The public hearing on the smoking ban is 7:30 p.m. June 12 at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville. To be included on the speakers list, call 240-777-7931. For more information on the bill, call Mike Faden at 240-777-7905.