Along the length of the Mount Royal Tavern's blue linoleum bar, next to nearly every pint of beer, glass of wine or shot of Jack Daniel's, a customer has plunked down a pack.
It's late Friday afternoon but because the Baltimore bar is so dark, it might as well be night. Only in the line of natural light that filters into the saloon through a front window, can you really see how thickly the cigarette smoke swirls and hovers.
Not every customer is smoking. But most are.
However, if a City Council bill being proposed today is successful, smoking will be banned in bars and restaurants throughout the city.
A statewide smoking ban fizzled earlier this month for the third straight year, and the Baltimore City Council's support of those state efforts has been fickle, voting in favor one year and against the next. Now City Councilman Robert W. Curran hopes that the time is right for a citywide ban. His bill would extend the city's ban on smoking in workplaces to bars, restaurants, hotels and other enclosed public spaces.
"When your smoking infringes on the health of others, that's when government restrictions should come into effect," Curran says. "Why should others who want to go to places because of the atmosphere and camaraderie, why should they be forced not to go because of the smoking?"
If Baltimore were to institute a smoking ban, it would join cities including New York, Boston and Minneapolis. States with bans include California, Connecticut and Delaware. And in Maryland, Montgomery and Talbot counties have instituted bans.
As is often the case when a smoking ban is proposed anywhere, the Baltimore bill is already drawing frenzied lobbying on both sides of the issue. And everyone comes armed with a slew of statistics to back their case.
Powerful restaurant interests, led by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, adamantly oppose the proposed ban, saying that it will hurt restaurant and bar business. They say Talbot and Montgomery county establishments already are losing money.
Melvin Thompson, vice president of government affairs for the Restaurant Association of Maryland says that a Baltimore restaurant and bar smoking ban will send smokers, along with their money, to other towns.
"If the City Council wants to drive business out of Baltimore," Thompson says, "I guess this will work."
But health groups such as Smoke Free Maryland strongly support a ban to protect bar and wait staff from secondhand smoke. By their tally, the ban in Talbot and Montgomery bans has had no negative effect on business.
"We're encouraging [Curran] and every other locality to go ahead right now," says Kari Appler, project director for Smoke Free Maryland. "This isn't new, it's not unique. Large cities and countries all around the world have institutionalized this and found that it works well."
In New York City, the ban has met with a mixed reaction. While some business owners say their income is down, others say the ban, which went into effect March 2003, hasn't hit them as hard as they feared. And while some people applaud the cleaner bar air, smokers have complained bitterly about a violation of civil rights, and others are irked that smokers forced from watering holes are now clogging city sidewalks.
Councilman James B. Kraft, whose district includes the hundreds of bars in Fells Point and Canton, opposes the proposed ban. He's already heard from numerous worried bar owners.
"My district borders Baltimore County," Kraft said. "It's not a hypothetical for these people. If they can't smoke, they can walk across the street."
If the customers can't smoke, the Mount Royal Tavern would close, and the city would lose its tax contributions, says one of its bartenders, Mick King.
"Everyone who comes in here smokes, and everyone who works here smokes," he said.
"Baltimore is a blue-collar town," King continued. "Not that that means that only blue-collar people smoke. But when you're done with work, you want to cool off at a bar and have a cigarette. ... If people can't, they're gonna go get a six-pack and go home."
The restaurant lobbyists aren't scaring Curran.
The councilman says he left his last pack of Winstons at Good Samaritan Hospital six years ago, after arriving there at midnight sweating profusely and having trouble breathing. They told him he had acute bronchitis, and when he heard that, he dropped his pack-and-a-half-a-day habit.
"I know I'm going to face opposition from folks who fear for their businesses," he says. But someday, Curran says, he thinks even they will come to accept a ban on bar smoking, just as everyone now accepts smoking bans on airplanes and in grocery stores.
"I don't know if the climate is ripe for this, but it is coming," he said.
Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who chairs the education, human services, health and housing committee, supports the bill, citing the dangers of secondhand smoke. "Cities across America are going to recognize the importance of trying to look out for the health of individuals," he said.
Individuals like Jason Wilcox, who was enjoying a dark beer and some Camel Lights at the Mount Royal the other night, said government should keep its regulations to itself. "I kind of personally think it should be up to the individual bar owner," said the 29-year-old, a maintenance worker for Maryland Institute College of Art. "That way, if people don't enjoy being in a smoky atmosphere, they don't have to go there."
Then there's Patricia McCarty. Although the middle-aged chef doesn't like the smell of smoke and won't allow cigarettes in her home, she smokes two packs a week - all at bars.
Even so, McCarty supports a ban, figuring that way she could finally quit the "terrible habit."
"It's gonna be a tough bill to pass in Baltimore City. There are probably as many bars as churches here," she said. "But it's worth it - even if it hurts business."