Maryland Smoking Ban Clears House, Senate Committees

ANNAPOLIS – A statewide smoking ban in Maryland appears to
be as close to done deal as it ever has this week after committees in the House
and Senate approved the Clean Air Act of 2007, which, if approved by the entire
General Assembly, would make bars, restaurants and other public places across
the state completely smoke free.

The effort to make all Maryland bars and restaurants smoke
free has gained momentum in recent years, but has failed each year because the
legislation could not get out of the respective House and/or Senate committees.
Those barriers were knocked down this week when the Senate Finance committee
voted on Tuesday to approve the measure and the House Economic Matters
committee followed suit the very next day.

The Senate Finance committee approved the Clean Air Act by
a narrow 6-5 margin with committee chairman Senator Thomas Middleton casting
the deciding vote. Middleton’s vote was interesting because he represents
Charles County in southern Maryland where tobacco auction barns still line the
rural routes. Middleton has been a stumbling block for the legislation in the
past.

The House Economic Matters committee approved the Clean
Air Act the next day with a 15-8 vote, sending the bill to the floor for the
entire House to vote on. Delegate Jim Mathias (D-38B), who represents Ocean
City and Worcester County, serves on the Economic Matters Committee and voted
in favor of the bill after wrestling with the public health versus private
business issue for several weeks.

“This was a very tough issue,” Mathias said yesterday.
“Strong cases were made by both sides and it could have gone either way, but at
the end of the day, the public health benefit was just too big to ignore.
Public opinion in our district went about 100-1 in favor of this legislation.”

While almost no one disputes the public health benefits
from the proposed smoking ban, many object to the bill because of the apparent
intrusion by the government on private enterprise. The bill’s detractors,
including the Restaurant Association of Maryland, claim the smoking ban would
create economic hardship for many of its members.

“Current law preserves freedom of choice. There is no need
for additional restrictions,” RAM’s official statement on the proposed smoking
ban in Maryland reads.  “Some
restaurants and bars have gone smoke free voluntarily, which works well for
some businesses.  However, smoking
policies should be determined by business owners and their customers, not by
the government.”

Both sides testified passionately during hearings in both
the House and Senate committee in the weeks leading up the votes this week and
both sides presented strong arguments for and against the bill, according to
Mathias.

“I got a lot of honest calls, sincere calls on both sides
of the issue,” he said. “When we had the hearings in committee, both sides were
extremely fair and presented rational, logical arguments. This wasn’t an easy
one.”

The Clean Air Act now moves to the floor of the House and
Senate with the full Senate expected to take up the issue as early as yesterday
or today. While the two committees approved essentially the same smoking ban
bills this week, the legislation coming out of each chamber was markedly
different.

For example, the House version allows for an exemption
from the bill, should it pass, if a business owner can prove undue hardship
caused by the ban. Language in the bill provides the opportunity for a
proprietor to present a case to the state Comptroller’s Office showing
justification for an exemption to the bill.

“There is a potential for a waiver if the business can
prove it is adversely affected by the smoking ban,” he said. “I’m pleased with
the waiver. It would likely be difficult to prove and I’m not sure the
comptroller’s office would be handing many out, but it does provide some
flexibility.”

Another major difference in the two bills approved by the
respective committees this week is a provision in the Senate version that would
exempt service organizations such as American Legions, Elks Clubs, Lions Clubs
and Optimists Clubs, for example. The bill approved by the House committee
allows for no such exemptions.

The committee approvals this week in the House and Senate
follow a vote last month by the Baltimore City Council to ban smoking in bars
and restaurants in Maryland’s largest city, which could have provided an
impetus for approval of a statewide ban this year. Baltimore joined Howard,
Montgomery, Prince George’s and Talbot Counties as jurisdictions that have
passed local laws banning smoking in most public places including restaurants
and bars, placing nearly half of the state’s population under a smoking ban
already.

Locally,
the business community has been clearly divided on the issue with one camp in
favor of the ban and another camp siding in favor of less government intrusion.
However, most agree a statewide ban will at least create a level playing field
for businesses competing in border areas between county and county and state
and state. 

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