Brian Fox follows the debate over Baltimore's proposed smoking ban - he can recite where every city politician stands on the issue - but that doesn't mean he's looking to City Hall for answers.
Tired of waiting for action, Fox, who owns the Sly Fox Pub, recently made the Fort Avenue bar smoke-free. It was a gutsy move in South Baltimore, which many revere for its old-school and often smoky neighborhood corner bars, but the decision appears to be paying off.
"I've always been for the smoking ban," said Fox, who opened his pub about two years ago. "This is very much a common-sense issue to me. There are more people who avoid places because they're too smoky."
Smoking ban opponents, including many in the bar business, say the prohibition would cause a significant drop in business. But an increasing number of bars are beginning to challenge the conventional thinking by doing away with smoking - at certain times, or altogether - on their own.
In addition to the Sly Fox, Bertha's in Fells Point banned smoking in its bar last year. Rocket to Venus, a new restaurant and bar in Hampden, prohibits smoking during dinner hours. Both the dining room and the bar at Golden West Cafe, also in Hampden, have been smoke-free for years.
"I think it was kind of a no-brainer. It's just a nicer atmosphere," said Michael Juengel, a manager at Golden West. "It's inevitable that you really can't have a dining room not smell like smoke if you have a bar attached to it where people are smoking."
Baltimore's proposed smoking ban has been under consideration by the City Council for more than a year, and it is scheduled for a final vote Feb. 26. If approved, the legislation would prohibit smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and taxicabs. Businesses that violate the ban would face a $500 fine for each offense.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly, meanwhile, are considering a separate statewide ban, a measure that has failed in the past. While some suggest the bill has more support this year, others speculate that what happens in Baltimore will influence the chances of Annapolis lawmakers' passing a statewide ban. Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties have enacted bans.
At Bertha's, the dining room has been smoke-free for years, but the bar, which is separate, switched over late last year. Andy Norris, Bertha's general manager, said the decision has had almost no effect on business.
"The numbers seem to be the same, but the faces have definitely changed a little bit," said Norris, adding that the decision to prohibit smoking was not based on the politics surrounding the proposed bans. "Some people are just ecstatic and thrilled that we did it. For some, it just takes getting used to."
Opponents say there is nothing wrong with individual business owners choosing to make establishments smoke-free. The problem, they say, comes when government forces the choice on everyone. What works for a tavern in one part of town, they say, may not fly for a smaller neighborhood place somewhere else.
"The last time I checked, we still had the ability to choose where we go, and most customers make that decision with their feet and their pocketbook," Fred Rosenthal, who owns three Jasper's Restaurants in Maryland, said at a recent City Hall rally. "If all of my bar customers said, 'We don't want smoking here any more,' guess what? We'd be nonsmoking tomorrow."
With its flat-screen televisions and large, white-light rimmed windows, the Sly Fox is a little more upscale than many of the more traditional corner bars in the area - but it is still largely a neighborhood haunt with many regular customers.
Fox said he tested the waters five months ago by prohibiting smoking on Fridays. More people started showing up, he said, so he put the policy in place for the entire week.
"I'm all for it. I don't have to smell it. I don't have to worry about thinking about it any more," Kelli Davey, a Baltimore resident who recently quit smoking, said during a recent visit to the Sly Fox. "There's nothing healthy about it."
Across the street at Captain Larry's, another popular restaurant and bar, an equally large crowd sat at tables in the dining room while a handful of people smoked at the nearby bar. Lindsay Smardon said she'd been to other cities with bans, and while she has not objected, she said she appreciates being able to smoke on occasion at a bar.
"Most of my friends who come out with me and don't smoke just say it doesn't bother them anymore; it's just what you get when you come to a bar," Smardon said. "They don't consider it a big hazard."
For Brian Carey, co-owner of Rocket to Venus, the smoke was getting "out of hand" on Fridays and Saturdays. As a compromise, he installed an outdoor heater for smokers and banned lighting up from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
"I think it's a great help for business for right now. We did see a lot more people coming in early on," Carey said. "Mainly, I wanted to make sure that our patrons were happy."