By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
RICHMOND, Aug. 29 -- Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said Tuesday that he is "actively considering" ordering a ban on smoking in state government buildings and vehicles, a move that would affect 100,000 employees and inch the commonwealth closer to a growing national consensus about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Kaine's willingness to consider a smoking ban is especially symbolic in a state where tobacco has been king since it was first planted by colonists in 1609. Philip Morris, one of the state's top employers, makes nearly 470 million cigarettes a day at its Richmond plant.
Responding to questions from two Northern Virginia listeners on Washington Post Radio, Kaine said, "I was surprised to find out that there is no state smoking ban in state facilities, and that's something that I'm actively considering right now."
The governor also reiterated his firm opposition to a government-imposed ban on smoking in private workplaces, calling it "too much of a reach for government."
"I just don't see government having to tell all these folks that if you allow the public in your place of business, you can't smoke in your own office," Kaine said.
That drew a sharp rebuke from state and national anti-smoking activists, who accused Kaine and other Virginia politicians of continuing to bow to the will of cigarette companies such as Philip Morris, which moved its headquarters to Virginia in 2004.
"I hope when you talk to the governor you ask him to explain the difference between protecting state workers and protecting all workers," said Paul Billings, vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association. "There is still significant political power associated with the tobacco industry. That's what's driving some of this rhetoric."
Tobacco was the state's leading export for nearly 400 years until being displaced unceremoniously last year by computer memory chips.
Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, is one of the top political donors to state races in Virginia, having given $2.25 million during the past decade. The company gave $80,000 to Kaine's gubernatorial campaign and $50,000 to help stage his inauguration this year.
A Philip Morris spokesman declined to comment on a possible ban in state offices. But he said the company does "understand and agree that people should be able to avoid being around secondhand smoke, particularly in places where they must go, such as public buildings."
Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said political contributions had no impact on Kaine's long-standing position on smoking. He said Kaine believes the marketplace will pressure private businesses to go smoke-free and said a decision to ban smoking in state buildings could serve as a positive example.
"The governor's position would allow an employer flexibility to devise a policy that works for employees and customers," Hall said.
That position puts Kaine at odds with many in his party and with the state Senate, which this year passed legislation that would have banned smoking in virtually all public and private businesses. The legislation died in the House of Delegates.
Sen. J. Brandon Bell (R-Roanoke), who sponsored the Senate legislation, said he is pleased that Kaine might be willing to ban smoking in at least some places.
"He's hearing from a lot of people. It's a broadly supported bill," Bell said. "I don't think he wants to be on the wrong side of that."
In Virginia, the decision to prohibit smoking in a state building is currently left to agency or facility managers, according to Hall, who said the result is "uneven" policies on smoking across the state.
In Maryland, smoking in state buildings is prohibited under a 1992 executive order and is limited to sealed, ventilated smoking rooms in all private workplaces except restaurants and bars. In the District, a law that went into effect in April bans smoking in all workplaces and in restaurant dining rooms. In January, it will ban smoking in bars as well.
Across the nation, 22 states, including West Virginia, ban smoking in state buildings, according to the American Lung Association.
The smoke-free movement is accelerating in part because of a June report by U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, who found that secondhand smoke at any level is toxic and "not a mere annoyance. It is a serious health hazard that can lead to disease and premature death in children and nonsmoking adults."
In November, Arizona and Ohio voters will decide on ballot initiatives that would ban smoking in workplaces. Smoking is barred in the capitol in North Carolina, a major tobacco-producing state.
But smokers have always had a haven in Virginia, where for many years signs invited visitors to the state Capitol to light up wherever they pleased. On the ceilings of the House and Senate chambers in the Capitol, which is currently under renovation, are pictures of tobacco leaves, a tribute to a crop that still generates hundreds of millions of dollars in valuable exports each year.
Now, if Kaine gets his way, the sweet smell of tobacco leaves wafting across from the world's largest cigarette manufacturing plant may soon be the closest that state employees in Virginia's capital get to smoking on the job.
Kaine has said several times that he supports voluntary bans by private companies. The law firm where he worked in the mid-1980s did just that, he said again Tuesday.
But he has said his opposition to government bans on smoking at private businesses stems from the memory of his father's ironworks business in the Kansas City, Mo., area, where five people -- including Kaine -- worked. He said again on the radio Tuesday that he cannot imagine the government banning smoking there.
"What is the right role of government?" he asked, rhetorically. "That is the question."