This may finally be the year Maryland stops blowing smoke - at least indoors. With a slew of new members and increasing momentum in local councils, leaders of the General Assembly are optimistic that a loophole in state law that allows smoking in certain bars and restaurants may be closed this session.
That's a hopeful sign after four years of stalled action. In the meantime, local jurisdictions are filling the vacuum by sensibly moving forward with their own smoking bans, keeping up the pressure for uniform restrictions throughout the state.
Currently, 16 states as well as countries such as France, Italy and Ireland have recognized the health hazards that can result from allowing people to smoke indoors and forcing nonsmokers to breathe their foul air. The American Lung Association estimates that nearly 49,500 Americans die every year from being exposed to secondhand smoke. A report last year from the U.S. surgeon general confirmed the dangers. And a separate study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health put the cost of secondhand smoke to Marylanders at $600 million in lost wages and doctor bills.
Still, statewide efforts to deal with the dangers have not gone far enough. Maryland's ban on smoking in workplaces doesn't apply to many bars and restaurants - and the state's restaurant association and other industry groups have lobbied heavily to keep it that way. During the past four legislative sessions, bills to close the loophole have failed in Senate and House committees.
Despite the General Assembly stalemate, Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard and Talbot counties have enacted smoking bans, and the recently installed Anne Arundel County executive, John R. Leopold, introduced a proposal last week that would prohibit smoking in that county's establishments. The Baltimore City Council has been considering a smoking ban.
The newly re-elected state Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch think that increasing support in local jurisdictions bodes well for passage of a statewide ban during the current session. But Charles County Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, who chairs the Finance Committee, sees no urgency to impose a statewide ban because "counties are doing it on their own."
But that's the wrong way to look at the issue. A statewide ban, setting consistent rules that apply to everyone and that protect everyone, would be much better than waiting for each jurisdiction to clear the air. It's a question of urgency, fairness - and public health.