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Businesses learn to live with smoking ban

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At Jimmy's Restaurant in Fells Point, you can get breakfast all day, a $2.95 Virginia ham sandwich or a cold beer, but since late March you haven't been able to smoke.

They've lost a few customers, said night manager Oscar Pate as he took a break from frying eggs, but "our client base is so large you don't really notice it." Personally, he finds the atmosphere "more wholesome."

It's been three months since Maryland's landmark workplace smoking ban took effect, and state officials, anti-smoking activists and businesses say the adjustment has been mostly without incident.

"For the most part there has been voluntary compliance," said John P. O'Connor, state commissioner of labor and industry. "Most of the workers have quietly accepted it, and I think most of the employers have quietly accepted it."

That's certainly true at Jimmy's, where the sign in the window proclaims, "We didn't make the law, but we'll learn to live with it."

Across South Broadway at BOP restaurant, Deborah Romano, an owner, said she enforces the law by blaming the government. She politely tells smokers who come for her brick-oven pizza, "I'm sorry, but the governor won't let you smoke."

Some would-be customers have left after hearing that, she said, but her business overall has been neither hurt nor helped by the ban.

On March 27, the state banned smoking in offices, factories, stores and other indoor workplaces, though it created full or partial exceptions for hotels, restaurants, bowling alleys, private clubs and bars.

Restaurants may put up separate, enclosed rooms for smokers -- but many, particularly smaller ones like Jimmy's, say that is impractical. Smoking is allowed at bars.

Thanks to such exceptions, Baltimore has not lost any convention business, said Dale Garvin, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The ban is "a nonissue with meeting planners," he said.

Violations reported

But not everyone has been complying with the anti-smoking regulation, and some businesses say they have suffered serious economic harm. The state has received 76 complaints about violations so far, which is not a lot for a major new regulation, Mr. O'Connor said.

His agency writes to businesses that have been the subject of complaints and asks them to comply. If they refuse or fail to respond, state inspectors may visit, said agency regulations coordinator Carolyn West.

Inspectors have found 15 businesses to be in violation, including Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, the Crofton Bowling Centre, two Denny's restaurants and Daily Double Bingo in Laurel.

Denny's went smoke-free when the regulation took effect in March, but began allowing smoking again last month after suffering an 18 percent to 20 percent drop in sales, said Karen Randall, a spokeswoman for Flagstar Companies Inc., the parent company of Denny's.

"Customers were complaining," she said. "They were confused because they couldn't smoke at Denny's but they could at other restaurants" with bars.

The company then was told that the state wouldn't enforce the ban during the first six months, she said. So on June 9, Denny's began letting customers smoke again in designated areas at 15 company-owned restaurants. (There are another 15 Denny's restaurants in Maryland run by franchise owners.)

A company official wrote to Mr. O'Connor asking if Denny's could continue with its smoking sections while it evaluates the possibility of building enclosed smoking rooms.

Mr. O'Connor said Denny's -- along with some other businesses -- is mistaken about enforcement.

Fines, despite grace period

His agency will not fine first-time violators during the first six months, but that does not mean that businesses can flout the ban, he said. Repeat, serious violators could be fined up to $7,000 for each infraction even during the grace period.

Mr. O'Connor's inspectors have posted violation notices at the company-owned Denny's on Belair Road in Baltimore County and a franchise-owned Denny's in Fallston.

The Baltimore County restaurant now is smoke-free, but the other company-owned ones are not, pending a written response from Mr. O'Connor, Ms. Randall said.

Patrick Hess, owner of the Fallston franchise and several others, said some of his stores also will continue to permit smoking until he hears back from Mr. O'Connor.

Mr. Hess said he reopened smoking sections in those restaurants most severely hurt by the ban last month. "You're talking about stores that dropped 25 percent in sales," he said. The biggest losers have been employees who have had their hours reduced, in some cases by so much that they lost health insurance provided to full-time workers, he said.

Learning to cope

Many smokers have learned to live with the ban. Baltimore ironworker Fred Williams, a smoker who was at BOP restaurant last week, said he didn't mind not being able to smoke there. His daughter, Amy, 15, likes the ban: "I don't like [smoke] around my food," she said.

Many businesses, including those that were cited for violations, say they also are trying to comply. (Daily Double Bingo contends it's exempt.)

The American Lung Association in Timonium has been running more than twice as many stop-smoking programs at workplaces since the ban took effect, said spokeswoman Shelley M. Buckingham. The non-profit group averages 10 programs during three-month period, but has operated 25 since late March.

General Motors says smokers at its Broening Highway plant have adjusted to going outside to smoke.

"We haven't noticed any change in production or attendance that would indicate people just aren't able to deal with it," said spokesman Jeffrey S. Kuhlman.

It may be too early to say whether the ban has caused Marylanders to smoke less. The state collected $2 million less in cigarette excise taxes in April and May than it did during the same two months last year, said Marvin A. Bond, spokesman for the state comptroller. However, cigarette revenues often fluctuate from month to month, so it is too soon to draw conclusions, he said.

Nonsmokers grow bolder

Perhaps because of the ban, nonsmokers have become bolder in their desire for smoke-free accommodations.

At Haussner's, one of Baltimore's best known restaurants, customers complained about a smoking section even though it was in a separately ventilated room that met the legal requirements of the ban, said Frances George, Haussner's vice president.

Some nonsmokers even tried to get out of paying their bill because they could see someone smoking in the smoking room, Ms. George said.

To avoid hassles created by "zealots," Haussner's banned smoking in all dining rooms June 1 but still permits smoking at its bar. The decision has cost it about 100 customers so far, she said. "I had a group of 45 people come in yesterday and when they found out we were nonsmoking, they said, 'Goodbye.' "

Still, she said the restaurant will stay smoke-free. "I'm going to hang in there because it's the wave of the future."

MARYLAND'S SMOKING BAN

Since March 27, smoking has been prohibited in most indoor work places, including offices, factories, stores and work vehicles occupied by more than one employee. But the regulation specifies several situations in which managers may choose to allow smoking.

* Smoking may be permitted in bars, tobacco shops and nonprofit clubs licensed to serve liquor.

* Restaurants with bars may allow smoking at the bar. Restaurants also may allow smoking in a separate, enclosed room not to exceed 40 percent of total floor space.

* Other businesses licensed to serve liquor, such as some bowling alleys, may allow smoking in a separate, enclosed room.

* Hotels and motels may allow smoking in up to 40 percent of their sleeping rooms.

* During public events, fire companies and fraternal, religious or charitable groups may allow smoking in up to 40 percent of the premises.

* Any business may allow its employees to smoke in separate, enclosed lounges with an outdoor exhaust system.

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