RICHMOND, Feb. 3 -- A Senate committee voted narrowly Thursday to ban indoor smoking in all public buildings in Virginia, including restaurants, in an effort to protect people from the effects of second-hand smoke.
The bill's ultimate fate is uncertain. It must pass in the full Senate and House of Delegates, and be signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to become law. But in a state where tobacco is the number one cash crop and where Philip Morris employs more than 6,000 people, the committee's action was a remarkable development.
Senate Bill 1191 is a complete rewrite of the state's smoking laws. It prohibits smoking in all public places and then provides a handful of exemptions. It also gives local governments the ability to go even further than state law if boards or councils choose to.
"This is a great bill for the lungs, the hearts and the minds of all Virginians," said Donna Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association in Virginia.
Opponents of the bill said it would unfairly restrict the rights of smokers and they predicted it would cost businesses money because they would lose customers.
State law in Virginia now requires restaurants to have separate smoking sections. And it prohibits local governments from enacting anti-smoking laws that are tougher than the state's restrictions.
Lobbyists for the retail merchants, the restaurant associations and other small businesses told senators their smoking customers will go somewhere else if the smoking ban were enacted.
Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) said the bill would ban smoking for many bars that are incorporated as an integral part of restaurants, like Applebee's, for example.
"I think this bill goes far too far," Newman said.
The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 8-7 to approve the bill sponsored by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun). Smoking would be permitted only in private homes, bars that are sealed off from other areas, private functions and workplace areas that are not open to the public.
"In Virginia, you have the choice to smoke. You have the choice to not smoke," Mims said. "This bill draws the appropriate line to respect the rights of both."
The bill goes next to the Senate floor, where Mims and anti-smoking advocates predicted it will pass with similarly narrow margins. Then the fight moves to the House, where opposition to such smoking regulations is much fiercer.
Asked whether his bill has an uphill fight in the House, Mims said: "You could so conclude. This one is going to be difficult at every step of the way."