Sitting in a crowded Washington jazz club recently, Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes grabbed a waiter to report that a patron at a nearby table was smoking.
"He said, 'Yes, and he has an ashtray,' " Rakes, an east Columbia Democrat said, recalling his surprise at remembering that smoking is allowed in the nation's capital. "It was awful," he said.
Rakes, like other candidates who favored tightening Howard's anti-smoking laws in a Smoke Free Howard County Coalition campaign survey last year, is preparing to move on those promises - including one to stop smoking in all bars and restaurants.
The first step is a bill all five councilmen are sponsoring that would ban giving away sample cigarettes in the county. The bill, also supported by County Executive James N. Robey, was pushed first by west Columbia Democrat Kenneth S. Ulman. It is due for introduction tonight and a vote in March.
"This is the one that would almost be a no-brainer. It's a good test," said Ulman, adding that it's also a good opportunity for a new council to demonstrate bi-partisan agreement.
The next likely item could be more controversial, however - a bill banning smoking in all public places, including county bars and restaurants where tobacco is now allowed in physically separate sections under a decade-old law.
Jordan Naftal, owner of Jordan's Steakhouse in Ellicott City and the president of the county restaurant owners, said his group has discussed a potential change in the law, and while fearing the uncertainties, they know the pattern elsewhere is typically just a temporary business loss.
"It's a mixed thing. We all have guests who want to smoke," he said, noting that his restaurant has a smoking area favored by cigar aficionados. "People want to relax and enjoy themselves. If we can provide that - if it's comfortable for the guests both smoking and nonsmoking, it's a good thing to have," he said.
A majority of the council members agreed that a complete smoking ban - a growing national trend - is desirable, but several worry about damage to existing businesses, as does Robey.
"I'm prepared right now to suggest that all new construction have a full [smoking] ban. I'm in favor of a full ban," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "It's a public health issue and an occupational health issue because you're still exposing employees."
But Guzzone, Rakes, Ulman and Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman from the western county are worried about hurting small business owners, and no one is ready to submit a bill - yet.
"I actually enjoy a smoke-free environment," Merdon said, noting, however, that many business owners spent lots of money to abide by the current law.
"Here we are coming around less than 10 years later saying we don't care about what you spent," he said. Kittleman worried about the same thing. "I'm not sure if I would support that or not. Maybe the way it is now is the best way," he said. A provision phasing in the change or exempting existing businesses is being discussed.
But anti-smoking advocates say the health of employees is at stake from second-hand smoke, and they are determined to push forward, though not right away.
"There is no doubt it is going to happen. But this is all down the road," said Glenn Schneider, legislative director for the smoke-free coalition.
"We feel very firmly that you have to educate, rather than legislate," he said. "People have to understand why this is an issue. We'll be going out talking to organizations to get out the word" about the dangers of second-hand smoke, he said, before pushing a bill.
Banning smoking has "no negative effect" on businesses, he said. "The only thing that would be different from now on is that the blue haze would be gone and you'd have healthier employees and happier customers."
More than 2,300 localities in the United States have smoking restrictions, and 118 require completely smoke-free restaurants, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation.
Locally, doubts are fewer about stopping the distribution of sample packs of smokes, though the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which gives out Camel cigarettes at Merriweather Post Pavilion shows in Columbia each summer, opposes such a move.
State comptroller's records show that 451,729 packs of cigarettes were given away last year as samples in Maryland, but David Howard, a Reynolds spokesman, said strict precautions are taken to prevent youths and nonsmokers from getting them.
Schneider said the bill originated from complaints in 2001 about youths receiving cigarettes at Merriweather.
However, Howard said the Camel Casbah booth is strictly regulated and a security guard rigorously checks identifications.
"It gives us the opportunity to get adult smokers of competitive brands to try our brands," he said.