An anti-smoking coalition wants Baltimore County officials to back legislation against smoking in the workplace, a measure similar to a new Montgomery County law that is among the strictest in the nation.
The coalition, called Smoke Free Baltimore County, has met with County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and is turning its attention to County Council members.
"Smoking is a huge problem," said Dr. Joseph Adams, a physician at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and the coalition's secretary. "It is the No. 1 health problem. Tobacco causes one-third of all cancer; one in five deaths in the U.S. is directly the result of tobacco use."
Smith said he is committed to preventing smoking and enforcing laws against tobacco sales to minors -- another issue that the coalition is pressing.
As for a ban on smoking in workplaces, which would include restaurants and bars, Smith said he would consider the idea but is concerned about the economic impact.
"We want to protect our businesses while we protect our citizens," said Renee Samuels, Smith's spokeswoman.
The coalition has scheduled a meeting with council Chairman Kevin Kamenetz this month. A spokeswoman for Kamenetz said he declined to comment until he knows exactly what the group is seeking.
The strictest anti-smoking law in the state was signed July 10 by Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. It will ban smoking in restaurants and bars beginning Oct. 9 but doesn't affect outdoor dining areas or private clubs.
Howard and Talbot counties also have anti-smoking laws that are stronger than the state law, but they are not as restrictive as Montgomery County's. In Howard County, smoking in restaurants is allowed only in a separate, enclosed bar; Talbot County allows smoking only at the bar and adjacent tables.
State law restricts smoking to designated areas in workplaces, bars, restaurants and hotels or motels and other public establishments.
As part of its anti-smoking campaign, the Baltimore County volunteer coalition recently created an online list of 423 smoke-free restaurants in the county, Adams said.
The project, funded by a $10,000 grant from the local health department's Cigarette Restitution Fund Program, included mailings to all county restaurants about the economic and health benefits of smoke-free dining.
"Having a smoke-free environment isn't harmful to the restaurants economically," Adams said. "The survey shows that full-service, smoke-free restaurants are thriving."
He said the tobacco industry misleads restaurant and bar owners by claiming that a smoking ban will hurt their businesses.
Melvin Thompson, the Maryland Restaurant Association's vice president of government relations, said his organization leaves the decision about indoor smoking to individual owners.
The association does not favor a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
"We encourage the owners to base their decisions on their clientele," Thompson said. "This system has been working well. In bars, the issue of smoking will be different than in a restaurant."
The decision to change to a smoke-free environment in January was the right one for the York Inn, said Peter Theodoropoulos, a manager and the owner's son.
"We had a lot of complaints from our patrons, and some people stopped coming in because of the smoke from the bar area," Theodoropoulos said of the restaurant on York Road in Cockeysville.
Smoke-elimination devices over the bar weren't working well enough, he said.
"We've had a lot of positive comments since we became smoke-free," he said. "Our employees are much happier now, too."
But the owner of the Linway Lounge on Harford Road doesn't think state officials or anyone else should tell her how to run the bar that has been in her family for four decades.
"My philosophy is, if you don't like it in here, just stay away," co-owner LouAnn DiNoto said, adding that 90 percent of the patrons at her neighborhood bar smoke. "If they ban smoking, I might as well close the doors."
In the coalition's survey, restaurants were considered to be smoke-free only if smoking was not allowed anywhere indoors, even in the bar area. The restaurant listing can be found at www.smokefreebc.org.
Along with a ban on smoking in the workplace, Adams said his group wants more aggressive enforcement of a state law prohibiting sales of tobacco to minors. The group believes enforcement has been lax.
County police disagree.
"The county police will respond if there is a complaint and try to resolve the situation," said Shawn Vinson, police spokesman.
He said the department's outreach unit sent copies of the law banning the sale of tobacco to minors to all 971 cigarette vendors in the county last year. The unit followed up with surveys to make sure the law was displayed in the businesses.
Penalties for selling cigarettes to minors range from a $300 fine for the first offense up to $3,000 for subsequent violations.
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.