A Bipartisan Blow To Smoking in Va.

Christy Gates, left, and Don Ferguson smoke at Shenanigan's Pub in Leesburg, Va.
Christy Gates, left, and Don Ferguson smoke at Shenanigan's Pub in Leesburg, Va. (Tracy A. Woodward - The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 5 -- Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican House Speaker William J. Howell have agreed on a plan to prohibit smoking in most Virginia bars and restaurants, putting unprecedented political heft behind a measure that was once unthinkable in the cradle of the nation's tobacco industry -- and home base to one of the largest producers of cigarettes in the world.

Under the plan, which represents a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation between the state's two most powerful leaders, smoking would still be permitted in private clubs, and other public establishments would be given the chance to construct enclosed, ventilated smoking rooms for patrons.

A few hours after Howell (R-Stafford) and Kaine stood together to unveil their plan, the legislation was approved by a House committee. It will be taken up Monday by the full House for a vote.

Kaine and Howell both predict the legislation will be approved. But opposition was building Thursday night, not only from the powerful tobacco and business communities but also from influential anti-smoking activists who did not think the proposal was comprehensive enough.

Political analysts and scholars said the compromise itself represents a significant shift for Virginia, where one in five adults smoke and thousands of tobacco farms still dot the landscape.

"Virginia has had a long, ambitious relationship with tobacco," said George Gilliam, of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

The bill came after weeks of private deliberations between Kaine, who is eager to leave office with a major accomplishment that will help define his legacy, and Howell, who is increasingly nervous about Democratic gains in recent elections.

After helping to block previous efforts to enact a smoking ban, Howell overrode the wishes of many GOP delegates and said it was time to forge a compromise with Kaine, who for years has made the ban one of his top priorities.

"I feel comfortable that the rights of citizens to enjoy a legal product have been protected and that the rights of citizens who don't want smoke while having their dinners have been protected as well," Howell said. "This is something that puts to rest a contentious issue that has been around a long time."

If approved, the bill would take effect July 1 and Virginia would join 23 states and the District of Columbia in banning smoking in bars and restaurants. The tobacco trade fueled Virginia's painful ties to slavery, and this measure would make it the first state in the South to ban smoking in both bars and restaurants.

Richard Kluger, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Ashes to Ashes" about the history of tobacco, said Virginia leaders' proposal to ban smoking in bars and restaurants represents a major milestone in efforts to marginalize smoking in the United States.

"You're talking about a deeply ingrained social habit that was almost the cultural norm," Kluger said. "It's taken 300 years to get there."

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