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The Restaurant Association of Maryland and its membe eateries in Howard County are trying to burn the cigarette at both ends -- and it just won't smoke.

In protesting the anti-smoking legislation that County Councilman C. Vernon Gray proposed, the restaurant industry is trying to make the case that it agrees with the necessity of a smoking ban for health's sake, but that mandating one would cripple business. The two elements of the bill to which it most objects are an exemption for bars (which derive less than half their profits from food) and the elimination of smoking sections in restaurants by 1995.

While we wouldn't assume to know the restaurateurs' business as well as they, some of their arguments seem dubious. They acknowledge that the blossoming segment of their trade is non-alcoholic, family-oriented and value-conscious, so why are they so scared of a few smoke-filled bars? Also, smokers are increasingly accommodating restrictions on their habit that they might have considered unmanageable just a few years ago: at the workplace, at the ballpark, at the shopping mall, even at a rare McDonald's or a bowling alley. As much as they might groan that they can't live without a cigarette before or after a meal, they'll learn to do that, too.

If there's any locality where a smoking ban might work, it is restaurant-rich Howard. The county has a well-educated, high-income population that isn't addicted to cigarettes as much as lower socio-economic communities.

Besides, business is not the only issue here. The U.S. government has identified second-hand smoke as a carcinogen. What does it say for these businesses that they are willing to fight so hard for 25 percent of their customer base, but seem cavalier about the health threat to the other 75 percent, not to mention their employees?

The restaurateurs' argument has been heard before: by homebuilders who contend that tree-protection bills will drive off home buyers, and by automakers who've argued that mandated safety or anti-pollution devices will discourage car shoppers. In matters of health, though, voluntary measures many times aren't sufficient -- and tobacco smoke in contained quarters where people sit for an hour or two would seem to fall in that category.

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