EASTON -- Smokers won a temporary reprieve yesterday when a Talbot County judge delayed the scheduled Aug. 1 start of Maryland's precedent-setting ban on smoking in restaurants, bars, offices and other workplaces.
After nearly two hours of arguments, Circuit Judge William S. Horne granted a request for a postponement from lawyers representing tobacco companies and local business owners.
The 10-day injunction, which began yesterday, officially expires Aug. 6. But Judge Horne is expected to grant an extension for a second court hearing on Aug. 11 and 12, when broader arguments about the ban will be permitted. Yesterday's action effectively holds up the regulations, the toughest in the nation, until after the second hearing.
Nancy B. Burkheimer, assistant secretary of the state agency that proposed the ban, said she did not consider the judge's ruling to be a setback.
"Eventually, with time, we will prevail," she said.
Judge Horne's ruling gave preliminary credence to business owners' complaints that the smoking ban will hurt them financially.
Sixteen businesses and trade associations, including restaurants, bars and hotels, joined the American, R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard and Brown & Williamson tobacco companies
in the legal challenge filed here Friday.
The suit claims that the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation did not have the authority to adopt a regulation banning smoking in almost all workplaces statewide.
Yesterday's court hearing focused on specific allegations that local businesses would suffer financially were the ban allowed to go into effect Aug. 1.
George A. Nilson, the lead attorney for the tobacco interests, said one plaintiff, the owner of the Washington Street Pub in Easton, polled his customers and found that most bar patrons said they would leave if they were not allowed to smoke.
Andrew H. Baida, an assistant attorney general, said the predicted loss of business was overstated because the ban would affect all bars.
"My answer to the Washington Street Pub is, 'Where are these people going to go?' This is a statewide regulation," Mr. Baida said.
"There's an obvious answer to that," interrupted Judge Horne. "You know how far you are from Delaware?" Talbot County borders on Delaware, which permits smoking in bars.
The battle drew a dozen lawyers to the normally quiet Talbot County courthouse yesterday afternoon.
Anti-smoking forces had tried to have all challenges to the ban consolidated in Baltimore, which they regarded as friendlier turf. But they lost that battle in a separate hearing in the city yesterday on a suit filed by a Washington-based anti-smoking group.
The group, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), generally supports the smoking ban but argued that it does not go far enough. ASH wants the Baltimore Circuit Court to overturn a provision allowing employers to set up specially ventilated smoking lounges for workers.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy Jr. said yesterday that he would make a decision on that request by 2 p.m. today. . But he ruled that the tobacco interests were free to pursue their challenge in Talbot County.
Talbot residents and business owners grappled with a similar, local proposed smoking ban last year. Anti-smoking regulations were adopted by the local commissioners, but ban opponents successfully petitioned the regulations to a referendum to be voted on this November.
Evelyn Cannon, an assistant attorney general representing the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation, came to yesterday's Talbot County hearing prepared for Judge Horne's ruling.
As soon as the injunction was granted, Ms. Cannon announced that she would challenge it in the Court of Special Appeals.
The ban forbids smoking in offices, restaurants, bars, factories, stores and nearly all other indoor workplaces.
However, smoking would be allowed in specially equipped and enclosed indoor lounges with ventilation systems that exhaust directly to the outdoors.
The state claims that it is exercising its power to safeguard workers' safety and health by protecting all employees from the hazards of second-hand smoke.
The suit filed by the business and tobacco coalition contends that the state has not proved that second-hand smoke poses a significant health risk or that an outright ban is necessary.
The tobacco interests argued in their suit that only the state legislature has the authority to adopt such a broad ban.