Alexandria's End Run on Public Smoking
Thursday, March 1, 2007
Frustrated that the state legislature failed to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, Alexandria officials have come up with a maverick plan of their own that would prohibit smoking in all new eateries and make it more difficult for existing establishments to allow people to light up.
The unusual proposal would use the city's zoning authority to mandate smoke-free restaurants.
If successful, Alexandria would become the first jurisdiction to bar restaurant smoking in Virginia, where the state legislature severely limits local authority. That means individual governments do not have the power to institute outright smoking bans in restaurants and bars, such as those adopted in the District and several Maryland jurisdictions.
So Alexandria has decided to use its limited powers to achieve the same result.
"This is something we all wanted," said Mayor William D. Euille (D). "It would be nice if the state would mandate and make it happen. But obviously they're passing the buck on this . . . so we need to move forward to do what we need to do, and we found the loophole to do it."
Euille said the city's proposal was a result of "creative, outside-the-box" thinking.
Alexandria would seize control of the smoking issue with such mundane tools as use permits. When a bar or restaurant came to the city to request a permit, the city would require it to be smoke-free before granting the permit. Restaurants that have permits must agree to go smoke-free in three months or risk future restrictions or even closure.
The state legislature evaluated several proposals to restrict smoking in public places this year -- always a difficult sell in a tobacco state -- and ended up with a measure that requires restaurants to post signs if they allow smoking.
Health advocates hope that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) will amend that bill to ban smoking in restaurants altogether, but even if he did so, such an amendment could have difficulty winning approval in the House of Delegates.
The city's proposal won praise from anti-smoking advocates yesterday, even as others who have watched the smoking battle unfold in the legislature privately expressed doubt it would withstand a legal challenge.
"This is a brand-new approach to me," said Teresa Gregson, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association in Richmond. "I haven't heard of anybody using their zoning powers. I like it. It stirs up trouble and throws a whole new mix in the pot."
In a memo, Alexandria City Attorney Ignacio B. Pessoa wrote that if other jurisdictions protect residents from the dangers of secondhand smoke, while Alexandria does not, the city is likely to suffer an "economic disadvantage." Thus, the city is within its local authority to use zoning to require smoke-free dining, he argued. Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Talbot and Charles counties in Maryland as well as the District have smoking bans. Baltimore approved one this week, and the Maryland legislature is considering a statewide ban.