ROCKVILLE -- Montgomery County is one vote away from enacting the toughest anti-smoking law in the state.
The bill being considered by the County Council would prohibit smoking in all bars and restaurants and at private functions in those places.
The Montgomery measure is under heavy attack from restaurant owners, who say a ban would drive away customers and force them to lay off workers.
"Are our employees to be considered part of the cost of doing business in Montgomery County?" asks Brendan Flanagan, a spokesman for the 300-member local chapter of the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "This bill goes too far. Its impact is too great."
Council President Isiah Leggett says the bill would extend to bartenders and those who serve food -- 70 percent of whom are women -- the same smoke-free environment that other employees enjoy under state law.
"This is a workplace issue, a women's health issue," says Leggett, the bill's prime sponsor.
Other Maryland counties have also taken a strong stand against smoking, said Montgomery County Council lawyer Michael Faden.
Howard County, for example, prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants, unless the establishment provides a space that is closed off from nonsmoking areas and has its own ventilation system.
One more vote
Leggett has the support of three other members of the nine-member council. He needs one more vote for passage and an additional one to make the legislation veto-proof.
Lynn Martins, the third-generation owner of a Burtonsville landmark restaurant, has seen both sides of the issue and says the proposed ban frightens her.
In March 1995, Martins polled her customers and 21 servers before eliminating smoking at Seibel's Dairy Market.
"I went smoke-free because I thought it was the right thing to do," she says.
Five months later, with revenue down 20 percent, she welcomed smokers back.
Her figures are supported by Claude Anderson, a spokesman for the Clyde's restaurant chain. Anderson says business in the Columbia branch fell 20 percent after Howard County's smoking ban took effect two years ago.
A legislative aide to the Howard County Council disputes Anderson's claim.
"Clyde's business may be off, but it's that other restaurants have opened," says Barbara Russell. "We have restaurants opening all over the place to the point that people joke that no one cooks anymore in Howard County."
Current Montgomery law requires a separate nonsmoking area in restaurants that seat more than 50 people. It does not require a separate ventilation system or barrier to keep secondhand smoke away from nonsmokers or employees.
Montgomery considered a smoking ban two years ago, but the proposal failed, 7-2. The makeup of the council changed in November with three new members, all of whom support the ban. Two members who opposed it say they might reconsider their position.
The latest measure has been endorsed by three former county executives, but the current executive, Douglas M. Duncan, has not taken a position on it.
The council had a hearing on the bill Thursday and could vote early next month.
Plenty of choice
Restaurant owners who oppose the bill say people looking for a smoke-free environment have more than 250 restaurants in Montgomery to choose from.
Employees who oppose the ban insist they can choose what kind of establishment to work in.
Lisa Watts, a nonsmoker and server at Seibel's, says she chooses to work in a smoking section because smokers "stay longer, eat and drink more and tip higher."
Scott Matheson, a bartender at Hunter's Steak House in Rockville, says 70 percent of his customers are smokers.
"If this ban goes through," Matheson says, "I'm going to be the loneliest person behind the bar."
Pub Date: 2/13/99