Two of Maryland's largest business groups urged officials yesterday to snuff out a proposed ban on smoking in every workplace in the state.
Spokesmen for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and an association of retail merchants said employers, not government officials, should be the ones to regulate smoking on the job.
On the other hand, the largest federal employer in Maryland, the National Security Agency, applauded the proposal, saying a smoking ban has been successful there.
More than 40 people testified at an all-day public hearing in Crownsville before the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board. If the regulation is adopted this winter as officials expect, Maryland would be the first state in the nation to ban smoking in all workplaces.
The one-sentence regulation would apply not only to office buildings but also to outdoor construction sites and even boats. It would prohibit smoking by employees of restaurants and bars, but not by customers.
If approved by the advisory board and higher-ups in the state Department of Licensing and Regulation -- whose chief came up with the idea -- Maryland smokers would find themselves feeding their addiction outside during work hours.
The proposal's goal is to protect workers from the dangers of "second-hand smoke" -- dangers that opponents say have been greatly exaggerated.
The Tobacco Institute in Washington sent a lawyer, a former federal Occupational Safety and Health official, a toxicologist, a tobacco executive and an indoor air specialist to testify against the regulation yesterday.
Some panelists said the ban was illegal and unnecessary while others picked apart the Environmental Protection Agency study flagging the risks of second-hand smoke to non-smokers.
"If there is a risk, it's so small as to be impossible to measure," said Gio Batta Gori, a toxicologist on the Tobacco Institute panel.
If the ban is ultimately adopted, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, the Tobacco Institute's man in Annapolis, pledged to challenge Maryland's authority to bar smoking by administrative regulation.
Anti-smoking groups also marshaled their forces. They quoted studies that linked second-hand smoke to cancer, lung ailments and heart attacks in nonsmokers.
"Environmental tobacco smoke is not an inconvenience. It's a major health risk," said Frances A. Stillman, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
She said Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore banned smoking in 1988. During the next year, she said, the percentage of employees who smoked dropped from 21 percent to 16 percent. Those workers who didn't quit managed to cut down, she said.
"There were not that many complaints from employees," she said. "No one quit [his job] because of the policy."
Employees must go to designated outdoor areas to smoke, she said.
A smoking ban also has been successful at the top-secret National Security Agency, said NSA smoking compliance officer Arnold Amass. The NSA employs an estimated 20,000 people on Fort Meade in western Anne Arundel County.
Not a single NSA smoker has had to be formally disciplined for disobeying the ban, Mr. Amass said. "Our policy has been copied by the CIA."
Several private business representatives, however, opposed the proposed regulation as just another intrusion by state government.
"We oppose any regulation that exceeds federal regulations, so that Maryland is not at a disadvantage with other states," said Chris Costello of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
"Government is becoming more and more intrusive in how business is being run, especially small business," said Ira Fader of Fader Tobacco stores. "The regulation to prohibit employee smoking will put my company and every other tobacconist out of business."
Mike Phipps with the Maryland Farm Bureau said he fears the regulation could hurt tobacco farms in Southern Maryland.
"The Big Brother mentality seems to be in place, in my opinion," he said. "I don't like smoke in my face, but I think that's the decision of employers, not the state."
Several employees, however, said the regulation would bring welcome relief from irritating smoke.
Keith Burkhardt of Owings Mills said he had sore throats from breathing second-hand smoke at a restaurant where he waited tables. "I'll never work in a restaurant again," he said.