Smokers get the boot

The Baltimore Sun

The rain was bad enough. But having to stand in it just to light a cigarette was really the limit.

Yesterday morning, hours after a statewide ban on smoking in public places went into effect, several patrons of a Hampden bar called Zissimos, forced outside by the new law, cursed their way through a smoke as a downpour spattered their baseball hats.

"Now we're going to be picked up for loitering in front of an establishment," said Raymond Hester, a 48-year-old house painter, as he embarked on an obscenity-laced tirade against Orwellian forces that he asserted were trying to take away his freedoms. Back inside, he took comfort in another Budweiser.

The smoking ban, which became law at a minute after midnight yesterday morning, was keenly felt in the watering holes of Hampden and elsewhere, the kinds of places where drinking and serial puffing go hand in hand. For the die-hards, the enforced separation of the two pastimes is what grated most.

"I can understand if it's a restaurant, if you're around food," said Michael Laricci, 49, a roofer whose workday was ruined by the incessant drizzle and who had taken refuge in Zissimos. "But in a bar? Come on. What do you want me to do - drugs?"

Sitting at the bar with a noontime brew, a 59-year-old Vietnam veteran who called himself Mike Marine was irate.

"We're going to turn into a communist country," he said. "This country was built on tobacco. I fought for this country and now they tell me I can't smoke. It's a violation of my First Amendment rights. You figure that on a Saturday or a Sunday people are going to want to smoke, especially if they're drunk."

The ban, he said, "is going to cause chaos."

And yet just down the block and across the street, at Cafe Hon, Mayor Sheila Dixon and other officials were extolling the rollout of the smoking ban as a momentous step in the direction of health for all.

"Some say it could not have been done, but we did it anyway," Dixon said during a news conference in Hon's bar. "As of today, citizens no longer need to suffer from exposure to secondhand smoke in restaurants, bars and private clubs."

After the speeches, for the benefit of photographers, Dixon, Councilman Robert W. Curran and the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, dumped a basketful of old ashtrays into a trash can, their usefulness extinguished by the new law.

Meanwhile, at the Elks Lodge No. 469 in Towson, the lunchtime crew cracked jokes about selling off the club's ashtrays real cheap and asking if anyone wanted to buy three gigantic, smoke-eating fans that hang over the bar.

Newly hung no-smoking signs on the doors served as a reminder that even this private club was subject to the new state smoking ban.

"I have mixed emotions," said Jim Beach, 55, of Joppa, a civil trial attorney. Describing himself as "a reformed smoker" who quit about three weeks ago when the price of a pack of cigarettes crept up to $5.50, he explained, "While I understand the point behind it, I don't necessarily think that the government should decide to legislate morality - especially in a private club."

About a block away, at Fader's tobacco shop, regulars gathered in the back of the shop to puff away in peace.

"It's over. We're done. This is the only place we can smoke now," said Marc Horwitz, a Pikesville mortgage banker. "I have read the law. It's written by a bunch of nincompoops."

Elsewhere, some patrons were giddy at the smoke-free environs of their favorite watering holes. Last night, students at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health joined advocates with Maryland PIRG, a group that has lobbied heavily in favor of the ban, for a smoke-free bar crawl at some of the city's most notoriously smoky haunts.

"I'm thrilled," said Katie Marts, a Baltimore fourth-grade teacher, at Dizzy Issie's, a hipster hangout in Remington and first stop on the bar crawl. "I just think we're so behind the times. I'm from New Hampshire - the 'live free or die' state - and even they have gone smoke-free. What took Baltimore so long?"

Customers hailed the end of waking up after a night of partying with hair, clothes and even purses, reeking of smoke.

"I would be at the grocery store and open my pocketbook and the smell would be everywhere," said Elaine Stevens, 55, who has owned Dizzy Issie's for two decades. "I don't smoke, but I might as well."

Brittany Fowler, 23, of Baltimore said cigarette smoke irritated her so much, she'd wake up the next day with an aching throat.

"I have bad acid reflux, and the smoke would really irritate it," said Fowler, who had just finished happy hour pints with co-workers. "I can deal with a hangover, but not the sore throat," she joked.

Her friend James Baldwin, 36, a Baltimore elementary school teacher, said bars will attract customers who had written off places known for smoky interiors. As for the smokers, they'll just have to get used to going outside to take a puff.

"I think in two months no one is going to care," he said. "Scratch that, in one day no one's going to care." kelly.brewington@

Sun reporter Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.

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