Count me among those who have been absolutely confused by Howard County Executive Charles Ecker's position on a smoking ban in county businesses and work places. I know that initially Mr. Ecker was opposed to enacting a ban here, preferring that the General Assembly enact a statewide ban first. That way, Howard businesses wouldn't face unfair competition from businesses beyond the county's borders. I can understand that position, even though I disagree with it. However, when it seemed the County Council would pass a smoking ban anyway, Mr. Ecker changed his position, insisting that any ban approved must not allow any exemptions. This is when things started to get murky. According to Mr. Ecker, this new stance was designed to protect businesses inside the county from unfair competition from other businesses exempt from the ban. But Mr. Ecker also said that he wanted to protect the health of workers who happened to be employed at taverns and all-night truck stands that were exempted from the county's sweeping legislation. This was the first time Mr. Ecker had mentioned the health issue, so it begged the question: Was he, in fact, more interested in protecting business interests or the health of those who work and live in Howard? I got my answer recently; It turns out Mr. Ecker is interested in protecting both . . . equally. "The health issue is important," the county executive said. "But business health is important, too. And many of them are living on the edge now." The issue, he said, is "jobs and lives." With that explanation, I certainly have been given the clarity I needed. Now the only thing left is to be shocked and mortified. It is difficult to fathom how someone could elevate the competitive concerns of the business community to the same level as the obvious and compelling cancer risks associated with second-hand cigarette smoke. The two don't seem remotely comparable. Yet it explains how the county executive could take two seemingly conflicting stances, and, even after having his veto of a partial ban quickly overturned, persist in keeping the issue alive by suggesting he may now draft his own bill banning smoking across the board. Why not let the issue quietly die? Because, Mr. Ecker said, his motives have been impugned and some believe he is insincere about a total ban. In fact, a total ban is the one stance that makes real sense. Unfortunately, coupled with his inconsistencies and explanations for his positions, Mr. Ecker seems hardly the one to accept as a true crusader and protector of public health. I believe Mr. Ecker to be a genuinely good person, who by and large has been unencumbered by stringent ideology or party affiliation. It is among the qualities, along with his easy going, common-sense rhetoric, that has endeared him to even the most hostile audiences. On this issue, though, I would like to think that he has simply made a mistake and allowed himself to be trapped into backing away from his earlier untenable position against any type of county smoking ban. Not everyone agrees with this. C. Vernon Gray, the Democratic councilman who is the principle author of the smoking ban and who may challenge Mr. Ecker for his county executive seat next year, contends that Mr. Ecker has shown a lack of "principles" and no "compass" from which to make such decisions. He didn't say moral compass, but I believe that is what he meant. I don't believe that. But I would hope that Mr. Ecker would simply accept his lumps and back away from this matter. That appears unlikely; Mr. Ecker said that the only thing that would stop him from introducing a bill mandating a full ban is if the tobacco industry challenges in court the new law, which actually doesn't take effect for three years. Tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano has intimated that such a challenge may be made. With this latest statement, though, Mr. Ecker further muddies the waters. His waiting to see whether tobacco companies mount a successful challenge only inflames suspicion that he is more concerned about business than health. If Mr. Ecker truly believes that business and health interests deserve equal footing, than he should introduce his bill now, fight for its passage and dare the tobacco folks to go to court. That would cast him in the role of a true crusader, not a purveyor of wishy-washy mush. Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.