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No-smoking bill is back in Howard Strict ban faces another Ecker veto


A threatened veto, a powerful tobacco lobbyist, and disgruntled restaurant owners provide the backdrop for the tough no-smoking legislation coming before the Howard County Council tonight.

If that sounds familiar, it should.

These are the same forces the council faced a month ago when it passed a bill that would have banned smoking in all public places except bars and taverns beginning July 1, 1996.

Had County Executive Charles I. Ecker signed the bill instead of vetoing it, Howard County would have had the toughest anti-smoking law on the East Coast.

The bill coming before the council tonight is nearly identical to the one Mr. Ecker vetoed June 18. The only difference is that the earlier bill contained a so-called smokers' rights clause. This one does not.

Mr. Ecker told the council he would sign the bill if the smokers' rights clause and the bar and tavern exemption were removed. Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the architect of the earlier bill, retained the exemption in the bill coming before the council tonight, however.

Unless the new bill is amended to delete that exemption, Mr. Ecker will veto it again, he said last week. It takes four votes to override an executive's veto. The council has yet to override one.

Regardless, there is little sentiment among council members to delete the exemption, despite a howl of protest from restaurant owners who say the bill puts them at a competitive disadvantage with bars and taverns that serve food.

At least one council member is expected to point out that when Los Angeles banned smoking in restaurants June 23 and became the largest city in the nation to do so, it exempted outdoor eating areas, private clubs, bars and bar portions of restaurants from its ban.

Mr. Gray says the competitive disadvantage argument doesn't wash here anyway, since a bar or tavern that earns more than 50 percent of its revenues from food sales will be subject to the ban.

Paul Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, says that although his preference would be for the bill to apply to bars and taverns, he would "hate for the county not to do restaurants while waiting for taverns to be included."

Far from being at a competitive disadvantage, Mr. Billings thinks Howard County restaurateurs would profit from a smoking ban. "People with children and health-conscious adults throughout the Washington-Baltimore corridor" would come to Howard County to patronize smokeless restaurants, he believes.

If the council approves the bill again as expected and it becomes law, nearby counties like Montgomery will follow suit, Mr. Billings believes. If that happens, Howard may move up the deadline for implementation of the ban to stay ahead of everyone else, Mr. Billings said.

The reason for waiting three years to implement the ban, supporters say, is to allow time for the General Assembly to enact a no-smoking law statewide, something tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano says is not going to happen.

"It is important for Howard County to realize that the prospects for a statewide ban are not good," Mr. Bereano said.

Mr. Bereano said he plans to testify at a July 19 public hearing on Mr. Gray's bill and "will continue to lobby hard before the council."

Meanwhile, local bowling lanes have asked that they, too, be exempted from the bill.

"In our business, smokers outnumber nonsmokers about 3 to 1," Barbara C. Deming, sales director for Brunswick Columbia Lanes, wrote the council. "We feel our hardship is equal to or greater than that which you are taking into consideration for restaurants.

"Our customers make a commitment to return to our place of business week after week for a period of 15 to 35 weeks. A restaurant's business is based on a revolving clientele who will endure 1 1/2 hours of nonsmoking on an occasional basis."

After the July 19 hearing, the council is to vote on it July 22. The council voted 4-1 to approve the earlier no-smoking bill, but Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, was out sick when the council sought to override the veto. Another supporter, Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, voted to sustain the veto, saying he could not support a nonsmoking law that includes a smokers' rights clause.

The clause, recommended by Mr. Bereano and approved unanimously by the council, said that "no person or employer shall discharge or refuse to hire any employee or applicant for employment because such employee or applicant engages in the use of tobacco products off the work premises during nonworking hours."

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