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Panel weakens ban on smoking in the workplace


A state Senate committee voted last night to weaken Maryland's landmark workplace smoking ban, flatly rejecting the governor's efforts to compromise.

Afterward, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he will veto the bill, which would exempt bars, hotels, restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses from the smoking ban.

"We are obviously very disappointed," Mr. Glendening said. He blamed an "awesome demonstration of power by the tobacco lobbyists" for the committee's action.

The anti-smoking regulation is at the center of a power struggle between the governor, its chief defender, and the legislature, whose leaders say the ban goes too far.

As originally adopted by state occupational safety and health regulators, the ban would forbid smoking in almost all public and private indoor workplaces starting March 27.

The regulation would apply to factories, offices, hotels, bars and restaurants. It would allow smoking in specially ventilated employee lounges, but opponents say such rooms would be costly to install.

Legislators have said the ban would hurt businesses that cater to tourists and conventioneers.

More than 110 of the 188 senators and delegates have put their names on a proposal that would exclude hotels from the ban, as well as facilities licensed to serve alcohol, including convention centers, clubs, restaurants, bars and racetracks.

Last night the Senate Finance Committee voted 8-3 in favor of that proposal, just hours after hearing public testimony on the bill.

Committee members agreed to require hotels and restaurants to set aside 60 percent of their space for a nonsmoking section.

But they flatly rejected a series of amendments offered by Governor Glendening as a compromise. In a concession to the legislature, the governor had agreed to exempt hotels from the ban and to give restaurants, bars and taverns more time to conform to it.

The governor's amendments provided "some additional relief based on discussion he had with legislative leaders," said his chief lobbyist, Bonnie A. Kirkland. "He has indicated all along his willingness to work with the legislature."

Specifically, the governor agreed to exempt bars, taverns and restaurants that serve alcoholic beverages and that hold 50 or fewer people.

Other restaurants, bars and taverns would have been given until Dec. 1 to install separately ventilated rooms for smoking customers.

The governor's amendments said establishments that violated the ban could have used as a defense the fact that it was "structurally or economically impracticable" to build a specially ventilated smoking area.

Only two of the 11 senators present last night endorsed those amendments.

The committee's bill now moves to the Senate, where passage is expected next week. The House is expected to follow the Senate's lead.

"From what I've heard, there is strong sentiment that the governor's amendments don't do it. They don't quite go far enough," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a former tavern owner from Cumberland.

He said House and Senate leaders want to move the exemptions bill as quickly as possible so they will have enough time to override an expected gubernatorial veto.

The regulation seeks primarily to protect employees from secondhand smoke, which has been linked to cancer, heart attacks and lung ailments in nonsmokers.

Employers with persistent or serious violations could be fined as

much as $7,000 for each infraction.

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