Va. and Md. Reject Ban On Smoking

Diane Kilby, left, Nikki Hokenson and Janice Dillon relax in Riverdale Park. The three oppose a public ban on smoking -- even nonsmoker Hokenson.
Diane Kilby, left, Nikki Hokenson and Janice Dillon relax in Riverdale Park. The three oppose a public ban on smoking -- even nonsmoker Hokenson. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Rosalind S. Helderman and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 24, 2006

Flirtations with smoking bans in Virginia and Maryland came to abrupt ends yesterday, as legislative panels in each state rejected bills that would have made restaurants and virtually all other public places smoke-free.

In Virginia, a House of Delegates subcommittee unanimously rejected a bill that had won Senate approval despite the state's long-standing ties to the tobacco industry.

In Maryland, a House committee chaired by a Baltimore delegate whose downtown district is dotted with bars and taverns turned back a similar proposal by a narrow margin.

Health groups -- including the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association -- lobbied extensively for the bans. Eleven other states have approved such prohibitions, as evidence mounted about the health risks of breathing secondhand smoke and more people stopped smoking.

Delegates in both states said that many business owners have prohibited smoking in response to customer demands but that those who wish to cater to smokers should be allowed to do so.

"The problem is, I want to have smoke-free restaurants and businesses. But in America, you don't pass a law to tell a private business owner who is paying rent or mortgage payments what he can and can't do in his own place," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax).

The proposed ban attracted particular attention in Virginia, the nation's No. 3 tobacco-growing state. The Senate's narrow approval of the bill was interpreted by many as a sign of the loosening of the industry's hold in a state that is home to the worldwide headquarters of Philip Morris.

The Senate sponsor, a Roanoke Republican, presented his measure as a public health necessity, arguing that science has proved the dangers of secondhand smoke.

"The bottom line is that we're not talking about a smoker's right to smoke indoors," said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II. "We're talking about my right not to breath in 4,000 chemicals and 60 known carcinogens that are associated with secondhand smoke."

Many lawmakers had predicted a quick death in the Virginia House, which has a long history of rejecting measures its members say amount to government nannyism. The smoking ban failed its first legislative test in the body, dying in a six-member subcommittee of the General Laws Committee.

"This is the wrong way to go about forcing this on businesses," Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake) said during the hearing. "People have to take some type of personal responsibility and not expect the state to do it for them."

Under House rules, the subcommittee vote means the bill dies for the year unless the full committee's chairman agrees the 22 members should hear the measure as well. In this case, Chairman Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico) said he does not intend to hold such a hearing. Bell said he was not surprised. "There's always a resistance to change," he said.

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