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Smoking Curb Wins After 6-Year Battle


The date on The Evening Sun's article about Anne Arunde County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb's anti-smoking bill is March 19, 1987. But for the yellowing page and a few outdated names, you'd swear it was written last month.

With a few changes -- a new picture of Mrs. Lamb, substituting Bobby Neall's name for Jim Lighthizer's -- the story could have run any time since February, when the Annapolis councilwoman renewed her efforts to restrict smoking. No one would have been the wiser.

Like the mills of the gods, the wheels of legislative change grind slowly.

"Restricting smoking is clearly an idea whose time is coming," Mr. Lighthizer said, back in 1987. Yet only now, six years later and after a long, contentious bout of political zigzagging, has the County Council approved an anti-smoking bill.

Why did it take so long?

Because even an idea whose time is coming has to fight for its life. It doesn't matter if the issue is smoking, bicycle helmets or longer school class periods. When the idea surfaces, there will be those who, loath to change, are ready to stamp it out.

But since a good idea keeps coming back, the fight to kill it or save it can be fought many times over.

That is what happened with Mrs. Lamb's anti-smoking bill. As soon as she introduced it, the pro- and anti-smoking forces dug in to fight the same battle they fought in 1987. Mrs. Lamb and her council colleagues, tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano, the business community, health leaders -- they went over almost exactly the same ground they covered six years ago. They used the same arguments, repeated the same anecdotes.

Both times, Mrs. Lamb talked about her stepmother, who never touched a cigarette but died of lung cancer after years of HTC inhaling smoke in the workplace and at home. She said she wanted to save other non-smokers from the same fate.

Both times, Mr. Bereano decried the "Big Brother mentality" he saw behind the smoking bills. "It's a social activity that is legal and lawful and legitimate, and people should be left alone to do what they want," he said in 1987. In 1993, he called smoking restrictions an unnecessary intrusion by government into the affairs of private people.

In 1987, Mr. Bereano dismissed medical evidence that passive smoking causes health problems in non-smokers. He pooh-poohed it again this year, in spite of a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that puts passive smoke in the same league as such carcinogens as asbestos and arsenic.

In 1987, the business community argued that the designated smoking areas required under Mrs. Lamb's bill would pose too great a burden. Besides, they said, most businesses were designating smoking areas on their own. They said the same things this year. And, while the council's makeup had changed since 1987, its reservations and fears about smoking restrictions had not. Although the council ended up unanimously approving a fairly rigorous smoking measure, four of the seven members started out dead-set against Mrs. Lamb's original bill.

However, unlike the 1987 council, which overwhelmingly defeated Mrs. Lamb's smoking measure with no fear of political fallout, the current council members realized they could not simply vote the bill down.

Six years had made a difference.

The tide of public opinion had shifted. An increasing number of jurisdictions were taking progressive steps to protect non-smokers. Our own county executive had banned smoking in county office buildings, with little adverse reaction. Most important, what were suspected dangers in 1987 were now confirmed in the EPA's scathing report.

No, council members could not kill the anti-smoking bill without looking as if they were still in the Dark Ages. So they originally came up with a counter-measure to Mrs. Lamb's. They called it anti-smoking legislation but, for all practical purposes, it perpetuated the old notion that people should be able to smoke wherever they want.

That bill, sponsored by Diane Evans, George Bachman, David Boschert and Carl "Dutch" Holland, exempted all those establishments where smoking poses the biggest problem: restaurants, hotels, the workplace.

The latest round in the smoking battle would have ended with that legislation had Mrs. Lamb not persuaded Mr. Boschert to change his mind and support amendments to the Evans bill -- amendments which, with a few minor differences, restored the restrictions to restaurants and the workplace.

Who knows why Mr. Boschert changed his mind? He says he felt the amendments were a reasonable compromise between health and business factions. Perhaps he figured anti-smoking sentiment had grown to a point where he would be better off politically on that side of the argument. Whatever, his switch ensured that the idea whose time was coming in 1987 finally arrived.

Interestingly, Mrs. Evans, Mr. Bachman and Mr. Holland seemed to acknowledge that fact when the amended anti-smoking bill came up for a final vote May 3. They expressed opposition to the way their bill had been changed. But they voted for it.

"The public health demands this council pass a smoking bill now," Mrs. Evans said.

The wheels of legislative grind slowly. But change does come.

It just usually arrives later, rather than sooner.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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