BASEMENT OF THE COUNTY OFFICE BUILDING -- Getting a smoke around these parts has been difficult for years, but in a matter of weeks, it'sgoing to get downright impossible.

Nestled in a dusty corner of afaux-wood paneled room, behind the Coke machine and the revolving lazy Susan-esque sandwich dispenser, is a nearly 20-year-old fixture that brings joy to the building's cigarette aficionados.

The beige National Vendors cigarette machine seems perfectly natural in the 900-square-foot snack room, except that it -- and the 1,200 cigarettes a week it dispenses -- appear to help people circumvent the county's 1986 smoking policy, which all but bans lighting up in this North Center Street building.

And that, says Public Works Director Jack Sterling, is the reason for its demise.

"I'm a smoker myself," he said, explaining the intricacies of this latest high-level Carroll County government crisis. "But we've been having problems with people using the machine and then lighting up in places they're notsupposed to be. So I think we'll get rid of it."

Getting rid of it is also favored by the County Commissioners. All it will take to yank the $700 machine out of the snack room is a call to the machine's owner, Watkins Amusements Inc. in Westminster.

The cost of removing the machine is nothing to the county. But the cost of this "Smokegate" to Watkins Amusements is more than the $30 it will have to spend to haul it out of the building.

"This is just another spike into the grave of free enterprise," said Brom Watkins, owner of the 45-year-old company. "The machine right now is there as a convenience. Now, all of those county workers who smoke will have to go someplace else to buy cigarettes.

"I guess it's the old American adage: In government, people who have the power over the majority rule."

Watkins, like Sterling, favors the tobacco pleasures of cigars over cigarettes.

The revenue loss to his company won't be great; the single machine sells about $105 worth of cigarettes a week. And, Watkins said, itis one of about 150 cigarette machines he has placed throughout the county and surrounding areas.

"It's just another example of government going too far," Watkins said. "Where is it going to end? Are they going to declare candy bars bad for your health and remove those machines, too?"

The county doesn't see it that way.

"We have a wellness program in place," said Micki Smith, county director of publicinformation and a former smoker. "We put a lot of energy into the program. It just makes sense not to provide opportunities for people not to follow the guidelines in that program."

Also, she said, thereis a problem with non-employees who buy cigarettes -- at $1.75 a pack -- from the machine and light up, despite a Big Brotherish smattering of "No Smoking" signs.

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