Less than three months before the state's sweeping smoking ban will go into effect, supporters and opponents of the ban tackled the details of the proposed regulations at a public hearing yesterday, focusing on a provision allowing for temporary waivers.
The waivers would give bars and restaurants that prove financial hardship a three-year extension to comply with the smoking ban.
State officials are proposing that, to obtain a waiver, businesses would have to show that the first two months of the smoking ban caused gross sales of food and beverages to decline at least 15 percent compared with the same period over the two previous years.
The regulations originally called for a three-month time frame, but officials reduced it to two months. "You must actually show economic harm in order to qualify, it's not a hypothetical," explained Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's environmental health coordination program.
"This is a 15 percent decrease in sales which we will ask the establishments to show was directly related to going smoke-free," he added. "It can't be due to other business reasons."
Business owners who can demonstrate that they are unable to recoup the costs of capital improvement projects designed to reduce smoke can also apply for a waiver, provided the work began before the law was signed May 17.
New businesses would need to compare three consecutive months of operating smoke-free with the same three months the previous year, or the three months before Feb. 1.
Public health advocates urged the department yesterday to stick with the three-month period for determining a businesses' economic hardship, and some said the capital improvements regulation should be scrapped.
Some also said the regulations need to require a 15-foot buffer between an establishment and where patrons can smoke outside.
But business owners said two months is more than adequate, and argued against a 15-foot buffer, which they said is not practical in cities such as Baltimore and Ocean City.
The hearing, held yesterday in Baltimore, comes amid a 30-day public comment period, which closes Nov. 13.
State health officials will then decide whether to make changes before submitting them for adoption or rejection by a state legislative review committee. The final regulations are expected to be in place by the end of the year and go into effect Feb. 1.
Dubbed the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007, the law passed this year requires bars, restaurants and private clubs, such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, to be smoke-free by Feb. 1.
Maryland joins at least 20 other states with similar bans.
Some parts of the state -- such as Charles, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot counties -- have instituted their own bans. Baltimore passed a ban to make the city smoke-free early next year, helping prompt passage of the state leglslation.
The ban will be enforced through complaints and investigations by local health officers. The first violation will result in a written reprimand. Businesses will be fined $100 for the second violation, $500 for the third, and $1,000 for each subsequent violation.
But the penalties were not the subject of debate yesterday. Instead, everyone focused on a potential 15-foot buffer and the waivers.
Representing the American Heart Association, Michaeline Fedder praised the legislation but voiced concerns over "watering down" the waiver provision.
"This is a marvelous thing," she said. "It's a public health issue. It will protect the public health."
Paul Michael Blitz , commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Essex, asked for a waiver and exemption for all American Legion and VFW posts. "I am a nonsmoker, and this legislation will put undue stress and hardship on many organizations that are already hurting," he said.
Jacob Button, a member of his VFW post, agreed, noting that such operations are not open to the public.
Others argued over whether ventilation systems really reduce the harmful effects of smoke and whether the capital improvement provision should remain.
Bonita Pennino, government relations director of the American Cancer Society, said "ventilation systems cannot and do not protect customers' nor employees' health from the dangers of secondhand smoke."
But Tom Moore, a talk show host representing three establishments, said his clients have spent more than $100,000 on smoke ventilation systems that help reduce smoke and should be allowed to receive a waiver. "It does actually reduce the harm of smoking although it is not a full reduction in harm," said Moore.