By LARRY O'DELL
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007; 4:34 PM
RICHMOND, Va. -- Smokers in the nation's fourth-leading tobacco-growing state would be banned from lighting up in restaurants and most other indoor public places if a bill endorsed Thursday by a Virginia Senate committee becomes law.
The Education and Health Committee voted 9-5 to send Sen. Brandon Bell's bill to the Senate floor, where similar legislation narrowly passed last year only to die later in a House of Delegates subcommittee.
Bell, R-Roanoke, said the measure is needed to protect Virginians from the health hazards of secondhand smoke, which has been proven to cause cancer and other diseases.
"It is a powerful carcinogen," said Dr. Antonio Longo, an Alexandria pulmonary specialist who was the only witness Bell brought before a committee that heard extensive testimony on the issue last year.
Cigarette maker Philip Morris USA is based in Richmond.
According to the anti-smoking group American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation, 19 states ban smoking in restaurants and 15 of those prohibit lighting up in all workplaces. Bell said four states approved bans just last year.
"There is a great deal of momentum across the country for this measure," he said.
But Christopher M. Savvides, owner of the Black Angus Restaurant in Virginia Beach, said he should be allowed to determine his own smoking policy.
"It's not about smoking, it's about my right as business to do what I need to do to attract customers," Savvides said.
He said many restaurants have gone smoke-free voluntarily while others continue to accommodate smokers, providing plenty of options for Virginians no matter what their smoking preference.
Julia Hammond, a lobbyist for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, emphasized the same point.
"The current system is working," she said. "There are several different types of smoking environments for customers."
Bell said many restaurant owners have told him they would like to prohibit smoking but are reluctant to do so without a statewide ban because they fear being put at a competitive disadvantage.
He also said the legislation would protect workers as well as customers. He said one-fifth of all restaurant workers are teenagers who often have little or no choice about where they work or whether they are assigned to smoking or nonsmoking sections.
Bell's bill would prohibit smoking in virtually all buildings or enclosed areas frequented by the public. Several House members have submitted similar legislation.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has signaled support for a restaurant smoking ban but reluctance to extend the prohibition to all private workplaces. However, Bell has said he is encouraged by Kaine's decision in October to ban smoking in most state offices and state-owned vehicles.
The bill is SB1161.
On the Net:
Track legislation at http://legis.state.va.us