Bill offers smoke-free tax break

The Baltimore Sun

Seeking to head off legislation that would ban smoking in bars and restaurants statewide, a Baltimore County senator has revived a proposal to give tax breaks to businesses that voluntarily go smoke-free.

Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Democrat, said she wants to offer a "carrot instead of a stick," in an effort to blunt pressure for a mandatory smoking ban.

"This bill is a compromise to allow restaurants and bars to voluntarily go smoke-free, but to allow them to make a business decision on whether or not to do so," Klausmeier said.

The idea ran into swift opposition from health advocates, who contend that a ban is necessary to protect bar and restaurant workers from exposure to harmful second-hand smoke.

"We would be creating a system of rewarding people for doing something they should be doing all along, and that is to protect their employees' health," said Bonita Pennino, government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Maryland. "We don't give an incentive to restaurants to keep rodents out of the kitchen. We feel this is very much along the same lines."

Legislation to ban smoking -- similar to prohibitions already enacted by local officials in Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties -- has been gaining momentum in the legislature, and General Assembly leaders have said they expect it to pass this year.

Klausmeier, who introduced the same tax-incentive bill last year, said she appreciates the desire to expand the number of smoke-free bars and restaurants but wants to protect small bars and restaurants. She said she fears they would suffer economically if forced to accept a ban.

Her proposal calls for tax credits of up to $5,000 a year for bars and restaurants that voluntarily ban smoking. Establishments in counties that have already banned smoking would be out of luck.

"They jumped the gun," Klausmeier said. "They could have waited and gotten my tax credit."

Melvin Thompson, the vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, said his members support Klausmeier's bill. He said his organization would like to see more bars and restaurants go smoke-free, but the potential economic impact, particularly for small taverns, would be too great.

"A lot of your smokers are also your drinkers," he said. "When you cut out smoking, you lose your drinkers."

Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, who as a member of the Prince George's County Council was a lead sponsor of that jurisdiction's smoking ban, said some protections need to be created for bars and restaurants if Maryland bans smoking. Prince George's included a provision to compensate a business if it can show it lost money after the ban went into effect. Montgomery did something similar, he said.

Kari Appler, director of Smoke Free Maryland, said her organization wouldn't object to creating a mechanism to reimburse bars or restaurants that lose business. But she said Klausmeier's bill is no substitute for a smoking ban.

"This would be proactively saying we expect you to lose revenue," Appler said.

But Thompson of the restaurant association said waiting until a bar can prove it has lost money may be too late.

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