C. Vernon Gray will try to convince his County Council colleagues tonight that Howard County is facing a health crisis because of secondhand smoke.
Mr. Gray, D-3rd, wants the county to begin gearing up for an almost total ban on smoking that would take effect July 1, 1995.
If the ban is imposed, local restaurants will suffer an economic crisis, owners told the council at a public hearing last week on a 16-page anti-smoking bill sponsored by Mr. Gray. The restaurant operators said they are not opposed to a smoking ban if it is imposed statewide.
They fear that if Mr. Gray's bill is enacted, Howard County may be the only jurisdiction in the state that bans smoking. Mr. Gray doubts it. He thinks a smoke-free Howard County could attract clientele from outside the county that would more than offset revenue lost as a result of fleeing smokers.
Further, the bill has a two-year phase-in period during which the county can examine how many more people have stopped smoking and how many businesses would be hurt by the ban, Mr. Gray said. In addition, the two-year ban would allow time for the General Assembly to impose a smoking ban statewide, Mr. Gray said.
The county Chamber of Commerce says two years is not long enough. It has asked the council to consider an amendment to the bill at tonight's 8 o'clock work session that would delay the ban another year until July 1, 1996.
The chamber also wants the bill to apply to taverns. Mr. Gray said he had exempted taverns from the smoking prohibition because he did not think he could get the bill passed without such an exception. He said the exception would not alter his primary purpose, which is to protect children and elderly adults with respiratory problems from the harmful effects of sidestream smoke.
"If you can find two other votes" on the council supporting a smoking-ban in taverns, "I will include it," Mr. Gray told chamber representatives at last week's hearing.
During that hearing, Dr. Cynthia Lipsitz, director of the county Bureau of Personal Health, and other professionals told the council that secondary smoke is a Class A carcinogen as dangerous as radon or asbestos.
"There is no safe level of exposure to a carcinogen," Dr. Lipsitz said. "Trying to have a smoke-free section in a restaurant is like trying to have a chlorine-free section of a swimming pool."
"It would be surprising to me if [the anti-smoking bill] does not pass the council, given all the evidence of the harmful effects of sidestream smoke," Mr. Gray said. "I would hope it would have [the affirmative vote of all five council members], to tell you the truth."
If so, the bill would be veto-proof. A vote of four of the five council members is needed to override the county executive's veto.
Although County Executive Charles I. Ecker has not indicated whether he would veto the bill, he has said that he prefers a statewide smoking ban. A local ban would create a hardship for hotels, motels, and conference centers, as well as restaurants, Mr. Ecker said.
He said companies that have their corporate headquarters within the county often conduct training programs and regional conferences here for employees who live in other parts of the country. A local smoking ban could discourage other companies from bringing their headquarters here, he believes.
"I'm concerned that a ban on smoking in hotels and restaurants would put us at a disadvantage," Mr. Ecker said. "I'm not a smoker myself and I support a statewide ban. I just don't want to put our people at a disadvantage."
Mr. Ecker said he would support an amendment to Mr. Gray's bill that would make it take effect when a statewide bill is passed.
Mr. Ecker's views "are very surprising to me," Mr. Gray said. "They are to his detriment. We'll see what happens."
In addition to calling for a total smoking ban in two years, Mr. Gray's bill includes provisions that would make the county's tough anti-smoking law tougher immediately.
The bill would reduce the amount of restaurant seating available to smokers, add to the amount of employee work space that must be smoke-free, and apply to private residences if the residences are used for day care.
Employers who have at least one employee would have to make any shared work area smoke-free.
According to the bill, "no person shall discharge, refuse to hire or in any manner retaliate" against non smokers. Mr. Gray said he plans to amend the bill so that the nonretaliatory clause applies to smokers as well.