RICHMOND, Feb. 3 -- A Senate committee voted narrowly Thursday to ban smoking in virtually all of Virginia's public buildings, including restaurants, in an effort to protect people from the effects of secondhand smoke.
The bill's ultimate fate is uncertain. To become law, it would have to pass the full Senate and House of Delegates and be signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). But in a state where tobacco is the number one cash crop and where cigarette maker Philip Morris employs more than 6,000 people, lawmakers said the committee's action was a remarkable development.
At the Austin Grill bar in Alexandria, smoker Doug Michaliga said of the proposed ban on smoking in public places: "I don't agree with it. In government buildings, I understand. But a bar? There shouldn't be a ban on smoking in bars."
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
Proposed Smoking Ban|
A bill to restrict smoking in public places was passed by the Senate's Education and Health Committee yesterday.
Senate Bill 1191: The Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act would prohibit smoking in most buildings or enclosed areas frequented by the public.
Exceptions: Among the exceptions would be private residences and autos; hotel rooms designated as smoking rooms; bar or lounge areas separately enclosed in any establishment in which smoking is prohibited; and private, separately enclosed office or work areas that are not entered by the general public in the normal course of business.
Penalties: Any person who continued to smoke where smoking is prohibited after having been asked to refrain would be subject to a civil penalty of not more than $100; subsequent offenses would draw a fine of $250. Failure to comply with the building restrictions would subject proprietors to a $200 civil penalty for the first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses.
Senate Bill 1191 is a complete rewrite of the state's smoking laws and the first major attempt to extend smoking restrictions in Virginia in 15 years. In 1990, lawmakers waged a pitched battle that ended with requirements for smoking sections in most larger restaurants. Smoking was banned in a few areas, such as elevators, cashier lines and emergency rooms.
The latest measure would go much further. It would prohibit smoking in all public places but provides a handful of exemptions.
"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 predicted it would cost businesses money because they would lose customers. State law in Virginia now requires only that restaurants have separate smoking sections.
Lobbyists for retail merchants, restaurant associations and other small businesses told senators that their smoking customers would go somewhere else if the smoking ban were enacted.
Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) said, "I think this bill goes far too far."
At Portner's restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, where the bar and several adjacent tables make up a large smoking area, manager Maria Thompson, 42, of Alexandria was contemplating how to create a smoking area on the patio for the newly banished smokers, should the need arise. She was thinking awnings and outdoor heaters.
"I'm ready," Thompson said. "I'm tired of secondhand smoke. It's dangerous."
Les McAllister, 43, a Fairfax County resident, architect and reformed pack-a-day smoker, said he was against the proposed ban.
"I know a lot of people who would not go into a restaurant if they allow smoking," McAllister said. "But I think it's too intrusive to put a ban on it. It's unconstitutional -- and a slippery slope."
Efforts to ban smoking in public places are controversial, even when the sweet smell of tobacco doesn't waft over the capital city, as it does on warm days in Richmond. Philip Morris's manufacturing plant is just down the highway, and its world headquarters is nearby.
In Annapolis, lawmakers are also debating a ban on smoking in public spaces. Montgomery County imposed a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in 2003 after a court ruling invalidated a previous ban adopted in 1999.