Friendship Heights Aims to Bar Smoking
In the urban village of Friendship Heights, just north of the District line, the mayor is fighting for the strictest smoking ban in the country.
The proposal would outlaw smoking outdoors on any public property in the community of 5,000 residents. The ban, recently revived after lying dormant for four years, has attracted national attention and stirred opposition in Friendship Heights, 34 acres of mostly high-rise condominiums and an elegant commercial strip.
The Montgomery County Council has the final say on some village matters and will consider the ban Dec. 12. If approved, the measure could make Friendship Heights ground zero in the ever-escalating fight against tobacco, and could also enhance Montgomery County's reputation as a community with a penchant for controlling public behavior, whether through its widespread installation of speed bumps or through its already tough anti-smoking laws.
It's illegal in Montgomery County to smoke in offices, and last year, the county banned smoking in restaurants, although that law is tied up in a court challenge. Last month, the council passed a measure outlawing self-service tobacco displays in retail stores, to limit minors' access to cigarettes.
Friendship Heights Mayor Alfred Muller, a physician, said he's thinking of the general welfare when he asks for smoke-free sidewalks, streets and parks.
"We're trying to change the social norm," Muller said. He has headed the village council for 25 years.
On Thursday, a County Council committee gave preliminary approval to the Friendship Heights outdoor smoking ban, even as opponents were crying foul and charging, among other things, that smokers are targets of discrimination.
"It is asinine," said lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who has long represented the tobacco industry in Maryland.
"The mayor is trying to be surgeon general of Friendship Heights. He's proselytizing."
First, smokers were pushed out of office buildings, Bereano said. Then they were booted from malls and restaurants. And now this.
"It is obnoxious and discriminatory to continuously harass and hassle that part of the adult population," he said.
Friendship Heights security officers, who issue parking citations, would be charged with enforcing the smoking ban. They would issue warnings first, then $100 tickets for violations.
Nationally, almost 1,000 municipalities have some restrictions on where people may smoke, and 77 have laws banning outdoor smoking in certain instances, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a California-based group that works to limit exposure to secondhand smoke.
Howard County is poised to approve a measure next week that would put cigarettes behind the counter.
But the proposal for Friendship Heights would go the furthest.
Several cities ban smoking within certain distances of public buildings, on beaches, and in parks and sports arenas. In Mesa, Ariz., officials in 1996 passed what was then the toughest smoking law on the books, outlawing smoking in most indoor settings and outdoors in any area where the public congregates, such as bus stops and movie-ticket lines. Friendship Heights's proposal would go further by including sidewalks and streets.
That's not surprising to Tim Filler, program manager at Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. "Montgomery County has been a leader in smoke-free air," Filler said.
County Council members have seen the Friendship Heights proposal before. It was first introduced four years ago, but it didn't have the support of a majority of the County Council, so village officials yanked it from the table before the council could vote on it. The measure was in limbo until this summer, when Muller revived it, thinking that in today's less smoker-friendly climate, it might have a better chance of passage.
"A lot of things have been happening in the public domain lately," Muller said. "We don't feel alone anymore."
"We" isn't all of Friendship Heights. Its 220-member civic association recently voted against the ban, the president said.
The one supporter was Muller.
"It doesn't reflect the will of the citizens of this community," said Cleonice Tavani, president of the Friendship Heights Village Civic Association, and a longtime Muller opponent. "It's been promoted as a public health measure, and it's not. It certainly is not going to deter smoking." She said the law is unnecessary and would be impossible to enforce.
Muller insists it is a matter of public health, namely protecting people with asthma and other ailments from wafting cigarette smoke, and making sure that they have as much access to public areas as the smokers. "No one should be told, 'I was here first. You don't like the smoke, go somewhere else,' " he said.
The proposal is for the smokers, too, Muller said. "This is a way to discourage them from smoking."
In Mesa, where the smoking ban has been in effect for four years, residents got used to it. "It's kind of like a non-issue now," said Mesa code compliance officer Lucy Marquez. In the first several months, she said her office issued about 20 citations--$100 to $300 each--but she hardly ever hears of violations now. "People like it."
Anti-tobacco groups are watching Friendship Heights closely, but they haven't rallied around the cause. "We have to prioritize what we do, and I think clean indoor air is more pressing," said Michaeline Fedder, president of the Smoke Free Maryland coalition. "We have a lot of battles to fight."
Muller, whose 13th term ends next year, knows he's risking his political future. But as a physician, he said, he is "not afraid of taking on the tobacco lobby and taking an unpopular stance." "I'm clearly not going to retreat on this, because I think it's important. It's more important than me."
Tavani says she may challenge him next time. "This whole thing on the smoking is just like the final straw," she said. "I may indeed have to run if that's the way we have to replace him."
Many Friendship Heights residents and workers expressed reservations about the ban. "That doesn't sit right with me," said Charles Lyons, 52, a "smoker who's trying to quit" who works for the U.S. Parole Commission in Friendship Heights. "I don't have any problems with banning it in restaurants. But outside? No way. I'm adamant about it."
In the County Council committee session Thursday, member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said he supported the proposal. To those who wonder "where's the line" with government regulation, he said: "We are paid to draw lines all the time. I think this is a line that can be drawn by us."