Friday, Jan. 11, 2008

Smoking ban fires up debate

Some business owners resent it, while others expect benefits

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
‘‘This ban is going to help a lot of smokers quit. It’s my New Year’s resolution,” Monica Davis said of the statewide ban that takes effect Feb. 1. Here, Davis smokes with Mark Britt (left) and Brian Connoley at Firestone’s Restaurant & Bar in Frederick last week.
As Feb. 1 approaches, Maryland’s restaurants, bars and other businesses are getting ready to yank their ashtrays and post ‘‘no smoking” signs.

For some proprietors, the ban is another example of Big Brother intruding on private enterprise.

‘‘The state has run amok. It’s getting out of control,” said David Castro, co-owner of a chain of cigar shops called Davidus Cigars, including locations in Frederick, Gaithersburg, Potomac and Urbana.

Others, however, welcome the ban.

‘‘My feeling is this is a good thing for everybody,” said David Winpigler, chairman of Francis Scott Key American Legion Post 11 in Frederick, which is covered by the ban.

The statewide ban that takes effect next month applies to most public places, private vehicles toting children and nonprofit private clubs such as American Legion halls. Outdoor areas of bars and restaurants and tobacco shops will not be affected.

At Terrace Lanes Tenpin Center on West College Terrace in Frederick, general manager Gayle Scott said she has been preparing her regulars for the ban, talking to league bowlers and trying to ‘‘slowly wean” smokers off indoor smoking by removing ashtrays.

In response to customers’ requests, Scott said, Terrace Lanes for the last five years has permitted smoking only in its bar areas, plus outside and in the ‘‘vestibule,” a lobby-like area between two front doors. Scott has been moving the ashtrays farther from the front door and warning bar patrons that smoking will soon be permitted only on the porches.

Once predominantly a late-night hangout, bowling alleys have attracted more families during the day in recent years, Scott said. She believes the smoking ban may draw even more parents looking for smoke-free venues for their children.

‘‘Mostly the nighttime bowlers will be affected,” Scott said. ‘‘It’s not really going to hurt [business], because the ban is throughout the state.”

Tobacco shops were the first businesses to be exempt from the law, Castro said.

Although his lounges will not be affected, Castro said, he and other cigar aficionados were heavily involved in fighting the law.

‘‘They’re banning smoking in all places when business owners should be allowed to decide,” he said. ‘‘It’s taking away the freedom of the business owner. It’s discriminating against one type of business.”

Amy Rodgers, bar manager at Champion Billiards Sports Café on Buckeystown Pike — where as many as 50 percent of the bar’s patrons are smokers — said her business may dip when ashtrays are pulled, but she hopes Champion’s outdoor seating will keep smokers satisfied.

Champion plans to install ‘‘no smoking” signs indoors and order more heating for the patio, but is waiting until the last minute to do so, Rodgers said.

‘‘We have a large amount of smokers, and they’re not looking forward to going outside,” Rodgers said.

Businesses may apply for a hardship exemption that could run through February 2011. To qualify for the exemption, businesses must first abide by the ban and then prove a 15 percent loss in sales over two months. Local health departments will decide on the waiver.

Private clubs also face ban

Exempting nonprofit clubs such as the American Legion was a contentious point when lawmakers debated the ban last year. But after restaurateurs argued that they could lose business to such clubs, the ban was extended to them, too.

Winpigler said he had recently ordered 1,500 disposable aluminum ashtrays for the club’s bingo night when he remembered the event had already gone smoke-free, starting the first week of the year.

‘‘Some are going to be upset for a while, but this is what we’re up against,” Winpigler said. ‘‘The majority will still come to the legion because they can walk out the door and have a cigarette. ... We thought we would start a month early” with the bingo night and lounge-only policy.

With roughly one-third of Post 11’s 210 attending members smokers, its leaders started limiting smoking from its banquet and dining facilities to only its lounge several months ago. Next month, smokers will find new outdoor ashtrays.

Post 11 is ready to repaint tobacco-stained walls, steam-clean its carpet and change its air filters in February as it considers purchasing a tarpaulin to protect smokers during bad weather.

‘‘We might lose a few [patrons] for a while, but then we might gain some,” Winpigler said of the ban’s effect. ‘‘I think we’re making more people aware of their health.”

Maryland banned smoking in public workplaces in 1995, but exempted bars and restaurants. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were among several Maryland counties and municipalities to impose their own ban before the state took action.

Montgomery County’s 4-year-old ban has fired debate between proponents and foes.

County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, who introduced the ban, points to figures from the state Comptroller’s Office that show a 19 percent increase in sales tax receipts from county restaurants, from $57 million in 2002 to $68 million in 2005.

But Melvin R. Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland said the ban also forced Wheaton’s Anchor Inn to close in 2004.

In a 2005 report, researchers from the University of Maryland and Roswell Park Cancer Institute concluded that smoking bans had no impact on restaurant tax revenues in local jurisdictions, including Montgomery County.

In addition to Maryland, 20 states, including Delaware, plus Washington, D.C., have banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

To learn more

The text of Maryland’s smoking ban is available at mlis.state.md.us⁄2007rs⁄billfile⁄SB0091.htm