Howard County became Maryland's fourth jurisdiction - and the first in the Baltimore area - to approve a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants with a party line 3-2 vote last night by the County Council.
Despite seven months of wrangling over the issue, the hotly contested, see-saw battle ended without debate or comment at a council meeting that took less than one hour to conclude.
Once signed by County Executive James N. Robey, the law will take effect in 60 days - except for bars and restaurants that now allow smoking. They will have until June 1, 2007, to comply.
Robey's signature is not in doubt, since he sponsored the bill with Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who is running to succeed him.
The law replaces a decade-old ordinance allowing smoking in bars and restaurants that have physically separate areas with separate ventilation systems.
Howard will join Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties and the District of Columbia in banning smoking. Charles County recently enacted a ban on smoking in restaurants.
Nationally, 13 states and 213 municipalities ban smoking in bars and restaurants.
Reactions to the vote were as different as the warring points of view on the issue, though some were just relieved it was over.
"We're there and it was worth the waiting and the effort," Robey said after the meeting, adding that he will sign the bill "as soon as it hits my desk."
Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican also running for county executive, opposed the bill and declined to comment after the meeting. Fellow Republican Charles C. Feaga said the result was obvious before it was taken and "I bit my tongue" rather than make a speech.
"It's the freedom issue with me," Feaga said, referring to the freedom of patrons and owners to have smoking or not.
Anti-smoking advocates at the meeting were ebullient, predicting a statewide ban next year. Melvin Thompson, vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, denounced the result.
"It's sad that politics is sometimes a race to solve problems that really don't exist," he said, adding that he hopes that next year, when the predicted impact "starts to bleed them dry," the county will move to help the 32 small family-owned taverns in the county that cater to smokers.
Ulman said he's pleased "that Howard County is moving forward to protect the public," while Kari Appler, director of the Smoke Free Maryland coalition of health organizations, said she expects a statewide ban to be approved by the next General Assembly.
A smoking ban bill was introduced months ago by Baltimore City Councilman Robert W. Curran but has lacked support from Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is running for governor. The General Assembly defeated a statewide no-smoking bill for the fourth time this year.
The bill voted on last night in Ellicott City is the fourth smoking ban measure introduced in the council since November.
Democrats largely sided with health advocates, who argued that a total ban is needed because secondhand smoke is a proven toxic substance that cannot be confined to one area of a business.
But restaurant owners and tobacco interests, championed by the council's Republicans and former Councilman David A. Rakes, an East Columbia Democrat, said small, locally owned places that cater to smokers will be hurt and some forced to close if a total ban is imposed in Howard but not in neighboring counties.
Owners who built separate smoking rooms and ventilation systems since 1996 will not be able to recoup their investments, and the bill's one-year enforcement delay provides too little time to readjust, they argued.
They also insisted that, with 83 percent of Howard's restaurants nonsmoking, the issue really is about the freedom of patrons and workers to choose where they eat, drink and earn a living.
The vote represented a triumph for Robey and Ulman, who are seeking new political offices this year - Robey for state Senate, and Ulman for county executive.
They introduced the first smoking ban bill late last year, only to see it tabled by the council's two Republican members and Rakes. That bill called for full enforcement starting Jan. 1, 2008.
That same three-member majority later approved its own ban bill with a four-year enforcement delay, but Robey vetoed it, saying the wait was too long.
Rakes resigned March 31 and was replaced by Calvin Ball, who supplied the crucial third vote for his fellow Democrats.