Soon to be snuffed out

A statewide indoor smoking ban kicks in two months from tomorrow. Here’s what some bars and restaurants across Southern Maryland are doing to prepare

Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

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Staff Photo by Reid Silverman
Smokers across Maryland will have to snuff out their butts while in bars, restaurants and any other public buildings once an indoor smoking ban goes into effect Feb. 1, 2008. Some bars and restaurants in Southern Maryland are building outdoor smoking areas.

Click here to enlarge this photo
Staff Photo by Gary Smith
Rick Snider of Waldorf, a longtime patron of the Double Eagle Tavern in Waldorf, enjoys a cigarette before state legislation puts a halt on puffing in bars in February.

Bar and restaurant owners as well as smokers throughout Southern Maryland are preparing for the looming state ban on smoking in public places, which will hit the state in two months.

Beginning Feb. 1, 2008, no one will be able to smoke in an indoor area open to the public, including places where alcohol is served, which previously had been exempted in Maryland.

The ban also includes indoor places where public meetings are held; government-owned or -operated vehicles such as buses, vans, trains, taxicabs and limousines; and any indoor place of employment.

State lawmakers passed the Clean Indoor Air Act of 2007 on the session’s final day, after striking a deal to not exempt private clubs, such as American Legion halls, but agreeing to grant three-year hardship waivers to businesses that could be financially crippled by a ban. Some taverns are preparing for the ban by building outdoor smoking areas as patrons discuss the pros and cons of smoke-free surroundings.

‘I love the clean air’

Charles County and the town of La Plata enacted smoking bans last year. In each case, the puffing prohibition caused a minor uproar among bar owners and smokers who frequent those establishments.

In particular, members of the Harry White Wilmer American Legion Post 82 in La Plata were disturbed by the ban because the nonprofit veterans organization draws a lot of its revenue from people who drink and smoke at the bar.

La Plata’s smoking law is stricter than Charles County’s ban, which prohibits smoking in restaurants, and other public places, but allows smoking in stand-alone bars that generate more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales.

La Plata’s law bans smoking in restaurants, private clubs, bars and other public places, including the parks and the town hall lawn during events, and within 20 feet of public entrances to buildings.

Members of the American Legion Post testified during several public hearings before the La Plata Town Council last year that the smoking ban would cripple the organization’s ability to raise money for the post and its programs for veterans.

‘‘All of the older gentlemen I serve fought for our rights and freedom, and I have a problem with the town saying these people can’t meet at an establishment that they’re members of and smoke,” said Kim MacKenzie, who tends bar at the post, during one of the hearings.

La Plata Councilman Scot Lucas said he has a problem with the town trying to legislate what goes on in private clubs.

‘‘The smoking ban is good for the town, but my problem is the American Legion is a private club,” he said. ‘‘I’m a big believer in what people do in a private club is private.”

Paul Bales, owner of The Crossing at Casey Jones on Charles Street in La Plata, testified against the smoking ban during the hearings.

Since the ban became effective last fall, Bales said he has noticed a ‘‘dramatic dip in business” because smokers are now patronizing bars outside of town where they can enjoy a drink and a cigarette — at least until February when the state smoking law goes into effect.

‘‘We lost 17 percent of our business in the first eight months the ban was in effect,” he said. ‘‘The smokers had a huge social culture. Large numbers of people would come in to smoke and drink. They’re gone.”

Bales said he is seeing a gradual increase in new patrons who tell him they enjoy the smoke-free atmosphere of the bar now that puffing is prohibited.

‘‘I love the clean air; my employees love it,” he said. ‘‘My customers make comments that they’re glad that there’s no smoking, but there’s just not enough of them.”

Patrons of the Double Eagle bar on Leonardtown Road in Waldorf can puff in the establishment until February. The bar’s owner, Gene Dillard, said his customers complain regularly about the impending smoking prohibition.

The ban is going to heavily impact the business, Dillard said. ‘‘It’s going to hurt me,” he said. ‘‘If people can’t come here and drink and smoke, they’re not coming here.

‘‘It’s ridiculous,” he added. ‘‘Maryland isn’t the free state anymore. The state is taking our personal choice away from us. I just don’t understand it. We elect somebody and all of a sudden, they think that they’re smarter than you are.”

‘People can walk outsideto have a cigarette’

Some businesses are doing everything they can to prepare for the ban, including adding outdoor smoking areas. According to a spokesperson for the state health department, the ban only applies ‘‘if space is enclosed by four walls, either permanent or temporary.”

Smoking will be allowed in gazebo-type buildings or decks with roofs, as long as they aren’t enclosed.

The state health department is still working on final version of the regulations.

Several bars in St. Mary’s have already applied to add outdoor smoking sections to facilities and received approval by the St. Mary’s liquor board, including the Country Store in Leonardtown, the Drag-N-Inn in Charlotte Hall and the Hole in the Wall in Hollywood.

Kim Mergard, owner of the Country Store, was the first to apply and receive approval for an outdoor area this year. She has added a ‘‘seasonal deck” to the establishment both to increase seating opportunities for the restaurant side of her business and to give smokers a place to take a puff come February.

‘‘I’m a smoker and I don’t have any objections to the ban,” Mergard said.

She recently converted the old store part of the establishment into a no-smoking area upon customer requests. Also, bands that play at the Country Store have told her they are looking forward to the ban because the thick clouds of cigarette smoke can add up to hoarse singing voices.

‘‘I don’t think it will impact business. People can walk outside to have a cigarette,” Mergard said. She’s pricing outdoor propane heaters for the deck now.

The St. Mary’s liquor board’s enforcement coordinator recently told the board that it would likely be responsible for any penalties dealt out for violating the smoking ban. Although local health departments would probably be the first to receive complaints, cases will likely end up before county liquor boards, he said.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has drafted regulations and taken public comment.

‘‘We hope to have them in place by the end of the year,” to give bars and restaurants time to adopt them, said spokesperson John Hammond.

According to draft regulations, a business owner would receive a written reprimand for the first violation of the ban. A second violation is subject to a $100 civil penalty; subsequent violations are subject to a civil penalty up to $1,000 apiece. Any fees collected will be paid into the Cigarette Restitution Fund.

The state health department is also developing guidelines for financial hardship waivers, which will be issued by local health agencies. All waivers will end Jan. 31, 2011.

The Restaurant Association of Maryland successfully fought against the smoking ban for five years, stating that the financial effects on bars would be devastating.

Now that the ban is only two months away, Melvin R. Thompson, the organization’s vice president of government relations, said all they can hope for is for local health departments to grant the waivers as allowed by law.

‘‘A business would have to show a decline in revenue of 15 percent over a two-month period” as compared to the same months from the previous year, Thompson said.

At one point there was discussion of banning smoking outside of establishments, he said. The restaurant association lobbied against those measures, in part because some small businesses already have started constructing decks or other outdoor areas.

‘‘They agreed with us there, so we were very happy with that,” Thompson said.

The ban does not apply to hotel or motel rooms as long as the total percentage of rooms being used as smoking rooms does not exceed 25 percent. It also does not apply to retail tobacco businesses in which the primary activity is the retail sale of tobacco products and accessories.

The state prohibited smoking in most public workplaces in 1995, but exempted bars and restaurants. In February, Maryland will join nearly 20 other states that have adopted a statewide ban in bars and restaurants.

The Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation estimates the law will impact as many as 5,000 bars and taverns in the state.

‘I think it’ll be an initial shock’

In Calvert County some residents are ready for the change to all non-smoking restaurants and bars.

‘‘I just think it’s time,” Tom Coyle of North Beach said. ‘‘Smokers had their way all this time and you’ve got these young people busing tables.”

‘‘I’m totally against smoking in restaurants,” Regina Claggett-Brown of Chesapeake Beach said. ‘‘It’s unfair to the non-smokers.”

‘‘I’m a smoker but I also know the problems [with smoking],” Brown said. ‘‘I feel as if it’s a good idea because of the [health] risk.”

Chesapeake Beach Town Council member and cancer survivor John Maloney said he lobbied for the change to all non-smoking bars and restaurants in Maryland.

‘‘I’m elated that it’s going to pass,” Maloney said. ‘‘If there’s one complaint I hear over and over again from the citizens of Chesapeake Beach it is that while our restaurants all serve good food it’s just too smoky in there and they can’t enjoy it.”

Maloney said that it is important to the health of the employees as well as other customers that Maryland bars and restaurants are smoke free. Advocates hope the ban will result in fewer young smokers and improved public health, too.

‘‘Servers are in and out of smoking sections and getting exposure [to second-hand smoke],” Maloney said.

Maloney said that his mother was diagnosed with cancer in December 2006 and he lost his brother to cancer in January.

‘‘This particular bill was a passion of mine,” Maloney said.

Coyle said that he does not smoke and does not like smelling like smoke if people are smoking around him in bars and restaurants.

‘‘Even if there’s only one or two people around you, you go home and smell like smoke,” Coyle said. ‘‘That’s just not attractive.”

‘‘Whether they have a section for smoking and a section for non-smoking you can still smell it,” Brown said. ‘‘I totally agree.”

While some bar and restaurant owners are worried about losing business, Jaime Padilla said he does not think restaurants and bars will be hurt that much. Padilla owns Adam’s Ribs in Prince Frederick and Jake & Al’s Chop House in Lusby.

‘‘I think it’ll be an initial shock,” Padilla said. ‘‘As long as the playing field’s even between all the locales ... the main thing for me is competition between other restaurants and bars but if we’re all subject to the same rules and regulations” it isn’t a problem.

Padilla said that since every bar and restaurant in Maryland will be subject to the smoking ban that he thinks everything will work itself through.

‘‘There’s a lot more non-smokers than smokers,” Padilla said. ‘‘I anticipate an initial slowdown but people are still going to want to go out” to bars and restaurants.

‘‘I’m not for” the ban, Daniel Johnson of Chesapeake Beach said. ‘‘I want to be able to smoke a cigarette if I’m in a bar or restaurant. If I’m drinking, I’m going to want a cigarette.”

‘‘I’m pretty neutral on it but I guess in the long run it’ll be better,” Padilla said. ‘‘That’s what it’s shown in other jurisdictions, that the non-smokers come out more.”

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