Montgomery Lets Village Ban Public Smoking
The Montgomery County Council yesterday approved the nation's strictest tobacco ban, prohibiting smoking on all public property, including sidewalks and streets, in the village of Friendship Heights.
Under the measure, anyone caught smoking or discarding any tobacco product on village property will receive one warning before being fined $100. The law takes effect immediately, but fines won't be levied until a public education campaign is completed.
The council's 5 to 4 vote in favor of the ban raised the battle against tobacco to new heights, and a spokesman for the tobacco industry said the village should be prepared for a swift legal challenge.
"See you in court," Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Maryland tobacco industry, said to village Mayor Alfred Muller after the council's decision. "Believe me, you're far from victory."
The law doesn't prohibit smoking in vehicles, on private lawns or on residential balconies and patios. Nor does it apply to Wisconsin or Willard avenues, which the county and state maintain. But lighting up will be illegal just about everywhere else in the 34-acre village.
"It's a public health issue," said Muller, a physician who has served as mayor for 25 years. "We don't have the right to outlaw tobacco, but we're doing what we can within our rights."
Friendship Heights is a community of 5,000, with many residents who live in high-rises and who frequent the high-end shopping district along Wisconsin Avenue just north of the District line. Because it is a special taxing district and not a municipality, all its ordinances must be approved by the County Council.
Muller and the other members of the Friendship Heights Village Council drafted the measure four years ago, but they didn't forward it to the county until July. Muller said recent county approval of smoking bans in offices and restaurants (now under court challenge), as well as a new law requiring most stores to put tobacco behind the counter, led him to believe that the council would be receptive to the outdoor smoking ban.
The four council members who voted against the measure said they believe the law crosses the line on what local government should regulate.
"I don't think we're justified in prohibiting someone from smoking so broadly at all times of the day," said council member Philip Andrews (D-Rockville). "When laws go too far, they lose the respect of the public."
The village's 220-member civic association recently voiced opposition to the outdoor smoking ban, arguing that there is little evidence suggesting that small amounts of smoke in open areas are a health risk.
"This is ridiculous, just ridiculous," Cleonice Tavani, president of the civic association and a longtime Muller opponent, said yesterday. "We don't like the impression it makes. We are not a community of extremists. We are not radicals."
Like it or not, the village is on the forefront of the anti-smoking movement. Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, an advocacy group based in California, maintains a database of about 1,000 local smoking ordinances throughout the country. Although several cities ban smoking in outdoor areas where people regularly congregate, none go as far as Friendship Heights.
"I haven't seen any community that has cleared the air of smoke to this extent," said Tim Filler, the organization's program manager. "It will be interesting to see how it works, and I think public education will be the key."
Educating the public about what will prompt a fine will be one of Muller's first challenges. For example, chewing tobacco wouldn't warrant a fine, but if the tobacco was spit on the sidewalk, it would be a violation because the law says it is illegal to discard tobacco products on public grounds.
The county added one amendment to the bill Muller presented, effectively clearing itself of the burden of enforcing the law or defending it in court. Village security personnel--not county police officers--will be responsible for issuing fines, and the village will pay for legal counsel if the measure is challenged.
Bereano said that Muller should expect someone to light a cigarette in Friendship Heights soon. If that person is fined, Bereano said, a lawsuit will be filed in circuit court challenging the law.
County Council President Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large), who voted for the ban, said the county will reexamine the law in two years, giving the village a chance to make revisions if necessary.
Also voting for the ban were Derick Berlage (D-Silver Spring), Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) and Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large). Opposing the ban were Andrews, Nancy Dacek (R-Upcounty), Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large).