City Moves to Ban Restaurant Smoking
Sunday, June 17, 2007
After a heated and raucous public meeting, the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously yesterday to use its zoning powers to ban smoking in restaurants, an unusual tactic opponents said would lead to costly lawsuits.
Many states and cities, including Maryland and the District, have banned smoking in public places, but the Virginia legislature severely limits local authority in such issues. Alexandria has opted to use the power it does have -- in this case, control over land-use regulation -- to force restaurant owners to go smoke-free or lose their operating permits. It is the first jurisdiction in Virginia to take such action.
More than two dozen people spoke at the hearing; most were against the ban. Chamber of Commerce members called the effort an improper use of city's powers. Several restaurant owners said they would lose business to eateries that permit smoking in places such as Arlington County.
"I'm mad, I'm upset, I'm furious," said Pat Troy, owner of Ireland's Own restaurant in Alexandria. "You're persecuting the restaurant people."
"You'll have a lawsuit," said Annabelle Fisher, a smoker. "Taxpayers will pay for it."
Bert Ely, a nonsmoker, said he feared the ban would hurt restaurant profitability and leave Alexandria diners with fewer options.
"I'm concerned as a consumer about the fate of restaurants in Old Town," Ely said.
Health activists, however, applauded the city's action. "Secondhand smoke is not a mere annoyance but a public health risk," said Cathleen Smith Grzesiek, director of public advocacy for the American Heart Association in Virginia.
The council voted unanimously to adopt the changes to the city's land-use code.
"People have the right to smoke, but they don't have the right to give other people cancer," council member Rob Krupicka (D) said.
"It's important to protect the health of our constituents," council member Ludwig P. Gaines (D) said.
As it became apparent that the council intended to approve the measure despite vocal opposition, some smokers began shouting their comments, causing Mayor William D. Euille (D) to warn that people who spoke out of turn would be ejected from the meeting. Several smokers left the room, gesturing their disapproval of the council's handling of the matter.
"I felt like I was back in a third-world country," said Amy Bursell, a smoker who had testified that studies on the effects of secondhand smoke have been mischaracterized as more conclusive than they really are. "They are a little group of warlords, reminiscent of the Taliban."
Several speakers urged the city to drop the matter and wait for the state to enact a ban on smoking in restaurants. In February 2006, the Virginia Senate voted to ban smoking in restaurants and many other public places, but the measure failed in the House of Delegates after tobacco companies opposed it.
Other speakers said Alexandria shouldn't wait on the state because the legislature has long been heavily influenced by tobacco interests.
"Having some experience in the legislature, I wouldn't put great faith in state action," said Marian Van Landingham, an Alexandria resident who served in the House of Delegates for 24 years, until 2005.
Council member Paul Smedberg (D) said he hoped the vote would send a message to Richmond.
"Sometimes local jurisdictions have to push the envelope," he said. "The country is heading this way. Virginia could be the last state to enact a smoking ban."
If the council again approves the measure in the session that begins in the fall, the ordinance would take effect July 1, 2008.