Targeting Smoking, Trans Fat and Cars

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Newly installed Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada, the highest-ranking Latino official in Northern Virginia, yesterday unveiled an activist, and potentially controversial, agenda for 2008 at the county's annual organizing session.

Tejada (D) said he would encourage restaurants to ban the use of trans fat in foods, seek to eliminate smoking in public places and require property owners to pay relocation assistance to low-income tenants who are displaced. The county also will urge residents to give up their cars to save money and reduce greenhouse gases.

In addition, the county will consider allowing homeowners to build small "accessory dwelling units" on their properties, a concept that has drawn protest from residents who fear overcrowding.

Because Virginia law restricts local governments from enacting many kinds of regulations unless the General Assembly gives them special authority to do so, Arlington could not impose outright bans on trans fat or smoking in public places, as governments elsewhere have done. Concerns over the health risks from artificial trans fat, or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are used in commercially baked and fried foods, have led to the products being banned in such places as New York City, Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

The first phase of Montgomery's ban on trans fat went into effect Jan. 1, 2007, with restaurants taking such steps as offering toast with butter rather than margarine.

"We don't have the power to do what they did in Montgomery County, but sometimes we can move things along," said Arlington Board member Chris Zimmerman (D). "A lot of people in our community would be inclined to go to restaurants that don't use trans fats."

Arlington eateries could make the change willingly. A number of restaurant companies -- including Marriott International, Wendy's, Legal Sea Foods and Taco Bell -- have announced they will switch to alternative oils. But other eateries and restaurant trade groups have opposed governmental measures, saying that changing recipes can affect a food's taste or make it more costly to prepare.

Tejada's proposal to promote the elimination of smoking in public places faces similar obstacles. 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 -- control over land-use regulation -- to try to force restaurant owners to go smoke-free or lose their operating permits.

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. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is expected to resuscitate the effort to ban smoking in restaurants statewide during the upcoming General Assembly session.

Board member Jay Fisette (D) will lead Arlington's effort to promote what Tejada called a "car-free diet." Fisette displayed a T-shirt with the slogan, "I lost 2,000 pounds in one day," and referred people to a county Web site,, which calculates how much money people could save by getting rid of their car and how much weight they could lose.

Fisette also plans to promote a regional bike-sharing program, as some European cities have done.

Tejada, who emigrated to the United States from El Salvador when he was 13, said he intends to make tenant-relocation payments mandatory, if it can be done legally. Thousands of Arlington County households, including many immigrant families, have been displaced in the past 10 years when their garden-style apartments were torn down to make way for upscale condominiums. Some people have received relocation assistance; others have not.

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