A statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants is likely to win approval from the Maryland General Assembly this year, legislative leaders say, as the number of counties that have adopted local versions of the proposed law continues to grow.
"It's something that's destined to pass," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller also said there is "a good chance it's going to pass this year." He added, "It's certainly got a lot of support in my own family, from my wife and my children."
A statewide ban has failed for four consecutive sessions, and it still faces fierce opposition, notably from the Restaurant Association of Maryland and other industry groups. But the idea is gaining momentum as more local jurisdictions enact bans of their own.
Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties have no-smoking laws, with Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City considering them. Nationally, 16 states have similar bans.
Anti-smoking activists kicked off their latest push for the legislation yesterday with legislators, health advocates, religious and labor leaders, and restaurant workers rallying outside the State House. Comptroller-elect Peter Franchot made an appearance and pledged to use his new office to speak out on the issue. Several speakers at the event used the refrain: "This is the year."
The ban's proponents say they have been emboldened by the U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona's report last year on the dangers of secondhand smoke. Carmona said the evidence is now "indisputable" that it is a public health hazard. Also last year, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health released a study estimating the costs of secondhand smoke in Maryland at nearly $600 million a year in doctor bills and lost wages.
While Busch and Miller set the agenda in their respective chambers, the smoking measure would have to pass through committees before a floor vote. That's where it has died in previous years.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who represents former tobacco country in Southern Maryland, said he doesn't perceive "a real strong sense of urgency" to pass a statewide ban because of moves to pass local bans. As chairman of the Finance Committee where the ban has been considered, Middleton said he might wait to see what happens in the House, where a committee voted it down last year, before taking any action.
"Why do a statewide ban when counties are doing it on their own?" he said.
Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley opposed a Baltimore City ban as mayor, pointing to competition from neighboring counties without such restrictions, but he has been noncommittal on a statewide ban. He will be sworn in to state office Wednesday.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran, the chief proponent of the ban in Baltimore, said yesterday that he will continue to push for the measure, and he challenged Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold to a race to see which body could pass it first.
Leopold proposed a countywide prohibition on smoking Wednesday, although the County Council's chairman, Ronald C. Dillon Jr., said he would delay consideration until after Maryland lawmakers take up the issue.
Melvin R. Thompson, vice president of the restaurant association, said it would be difficult to gauge the smoking ban's prospects this year. Complicating the task is the turnover, with 45 new lawmakers taking office after November's elections. "We are uncertain if the bill has enough support to pass the committee, and we are going to fight to make sure that doesn't happen," he said.
Thompson and other lobbyists argue that smaller, independently owned restaurants, bars and taverns would be disproportionately hurt by the statewide ban.
"It is a business killer, especially in a small bar setting," said Frank D. Boston III, a lobbyist for the Baltimore Licensed Beverage Association. "People come in and they want to have a drink and a smoke. It's all about choice. Individual proprietors can say they want to be smoke-free, but a blanket statewide law would certainly hurt small businesses."
Both sides are armed with statistics. For instance, proponents say sales tax receipts from restaurants in Montgomery County increased 8 percent annually on average for the first three years after the ban went into effect in late 2003.
The restaurant association, however, contends that when restaurants and bars with liquor licenses are singled out from the larger chain and fast-food establishments, sales remained flat for the first six months in the county after the law took effect in Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Both sides also are at odds over whether the smoking ban hurts convention business. Boston said conventions, especially those involving foreign travelers, often don't choose sites that limit smoking.
Others say the smoking ban would be a draw. Jeff Hoffman from Danya International, which arranges conventions for the National Institutes of Health and other clients, said they avoid Baltimore because its restaurants and bars allow smoking.
Maryland has prohibited smoking in all other workplaces since 1995. The broader proposal in the legislature this year, titled the Clean Indoor Air Act, is expected to differ from last year's legislation in that tobacco shops would be exempted and smoking would be prohibited at the entrances of establishments.
If a statewide smoking ban is passed, Maryland would join several other Northeast states as well as the District of Columbia, where a law went into effect this month.
It also would be joining what had been one of the most enduring havens for smokers in the workplace - the Speaker's Lobby of the United States Capitol. The new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, decreed that area smoke-free this week.
Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.