The Maryland Senate approved a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants last night after days of negotiations on a compromise measure that dropped exemptions for private clubs.
The General Assembly is expected to approve to the measure Monday, when the House of Delegates takes a final vote on the bill.
The Senate's vote, 31-16, came last night after negotiators from the Senate and the House of Delegates spent the day hashing out what had become a major sticking point: whether the ban should allow exemptions for private clubs such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The statewide ban would primarily prohibit lighting up in restaurants and bars, which were not covered when the state prohibited smoking in most workplaces more than a decade ago.
The ban would not apply to tobacco shops.
Maryland would join more than 20 states that have enacted such bans, laws that supporters say are great strides for public health, but that opponents assert have crippling effects on small businesses.
Senators engaged in only limited debate on the compromise. Several Republicans asked about the conference committee's decision not to grant exemptions for private clubs, but they didn't argue the point.
"The arguments were made in conference that if we're going to do this, we should do it in a uniform manner across the state," said Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the bill.
Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who opposed the smoking ban, said the compromise between the House and Senate only made matters worse for small tavern and restaurant owners.
"The hand of government intrusion is going way too far," said Harris, the Senate's lone physician.
"At some point, you have to say, 'Let people assume the risk.'"
Gov. Martin O'Malley has lobbied for the ban and pledged to sign legislation if it reaches his desk. He has said he would prefer the bill to have as few exemptions as possible.
"Governor O'Malley looks forward to signing the smoking ban into law," said Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman. "This is a significant step to improving the health of Maryland's families."
The House and the Senate passed separate versions of the legislation, which would ban smoking in most public indoor places.
In addition, the legislation differed in terms of how to grant "hardship" waivers for bars and restaurants that might be hurt financially by the ban.
The compromise legislation states that the ban would take effect Feb. 1, 2008. The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will develop regulations before then. Bar and restaurant owners may apply for waivers from the state, while the local health departments will issue them.
All waivers would expire by 2011 and are not renewable.
"We did not want to make this a lifetime thing," Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said of the waiver plan. "This was the result of a lot of give-and-take."
Harris said that is little comfort to business owners.
"The Senate bill at least had an exemption for those businesses as long as they can prove a financial hardship," Harris said. "Now we're saying, 'Instead of killing your business now, we're killing your business in three years.'"
Del. Michael L. Vaughn, a Prince George's County Democrat who was a member of the conference committee, said lawmakers agreed against allowing any establishment to be exempt so that no "one will have any type of advantage over another."
"You have some jurisdictions where you have full-fledged bars within 30 yards from where you have a private club," he said. "You have the opportunity to have a financial advantage over a bar, if you are a private club. We did this so there would be no possibility for financial advantage."
The House and the Senate have taken different approaches to the hardship waiver.
A ban approved recently in Baltimore City has a similar provision, and such a system has been used in New York, where few establishments have been able to secure waivers. The debate is whether to have one standard or give local control.
Bonita M. Pennino, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, said the measure would provide a safe working environment for bar and restaurant workers, and "protect tens of thousands of individuals from the harms of secondhand smoke."
"The Maryland Senate just passed one of the strongest bans in the nation, if not the strongest," said Pennino, "because it covers all clubs and the waivers have an expiration date."