The Maryland General Assembly is poised to consider a proposed statewide smoking ban today, a day after a spirited debate in the state Senate in which the chamber's only physician spoke out against the bill.
Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said he feared that prohibiting smoking in most bars and restaurants would harm small businesses. He also questioned the committee's interpretation of studies on the effects of second-hand smoke.
Harris said bar and restaurant employees and people who live with a smoker are at most risk to the harms of second-hand smoke.
"If you go in casually to a restaurant, it has never been shown in scientific studies that it is harmful to your health," Harris said.
Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, a Montgomery County Democrat, said a U.S. Surgeon General's report, data from other states and testimony from health experts offer "indisputable" evidence of the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.
"Every study over the years shows that any exposure to second-hand smoke is going to cause a health risk," Garagiola said. "This is a public health issue."
Harris said some people have asked him how a physician could oppose the bill.
"If we think we are going to decrease the incidence of lung cancer among people who go into an occasional dinner at a restaurant with smoking," he said, "I don't agree."
The Senate adjourned yesterday without a vote on the smoking issue. The House is also expected to debate the bill today.
The lively debate was followed by a lighthearted moment when one senator asked if the ban would affect a type of smoking few of his colleagues had ever heard of: hookahs.
Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore Democrat, asked if the proposal applied to trendy hookah lounges - bars that feature smoking flavored tobacco through a water pipe. But some of his fellow senators seemed to have no idea what he was talking about.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller asked Zirkin, with a chuckle: "Explain it to those of us who are over 30."
"It's like a pipe," said Zirkin. "They have become very popular. ... It looks like a bong," he said, eliciting laughter from the chamber.
"Seriously, if these lounges are not taken out, they will be made illegal. ... At the end of the day, if you pass this thing the way it is, you're putting a lot of people out of business."
Some senators remained puzzled.
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, asked if hookahs contained tobacco. Zirkin replied that they do.
"I was under the impression that they were mint leaves and cloves," she said. "Under this bill you can't smoke tobacco products. ... Now, if they are smoking something else ... "
Again, laughter erupted in the chamber. "I think there are some limits," said Garagiola, chuckling.
Klausmeier rephrased her point.
"If they are smoking some other legal thing, then they will be all right," she said.
Zirkin, who said he supports the smoking ban, said he planned to ask the attorney general's office for an opinion about whether hookah and cigar lounges could qualify for an exemption to the bill.