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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)

Lawmakers in North Carolina, another tobacco-growing state, are also debating proposals for indoor smoking bans this year. Public sentiment in recent years has shifted rapidly in favor of the bans. A 2006 Gallup poll found that even most smokers believed increased restrictions on smoking in public places are justified.

Thursday's announcement does not guarantee that the legislation will win approval in Richmond. Anti-smoking and health advocates argued that the proposed ban does not go far enough. The American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Lung Association vowed Thursday to fight the bill. They say it lacks enforcement -- violating the ban would bring only a $25 fine for businesses.

Peter Fisher, a vice president at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the proposal "a step backward."

"It looks like a bit of a missed opportunity," said Fisher, whose organization is opposing the bill.

Conservatives are also blasting the proposal, saying it curtails individual freedom. "It's a property rights, liberty and freedom issue," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah). "One of the basic tenets of our party is that we trust people to make decisions that are right for themselves."

But Kaine said the proposal is a "good example of compromise" and "a true bipartisan achievement."

Kaine and Howell started working behind the scenes on a compromise months ago. Last summer, the Kaine administration floated a proposal to limit a ban to evening hours, before alcohol starts flowing. Howell didn't show much interest in the idea.

Howell restarted the negotiations after he grew worried about the looming November elections, GOP delegates say. Since Howell took over as speaker in 2003, Democrats have picked up 11 House seats. If Democrats pick up six more seats in the November election, they will gain the majority.

Howell denies that politics influenced his decision. But Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has tried to broker past compromises on the issue, said the speaker is trying to reverse the perception that House Republicans are inflexible.

"I don't think he even wanted to ban smoking, but he wanted to show he could compromise," Albo said.

Howell is now staking his reputation on getting the bill approved.

On Wednesday, one Republican who opposed the ban demanded a caucus vote to find out if a majority supported the issue. But Howell stopped them and said, if they wanted to, they could instead take a vote on his leadership.

According to GOP lawmakers who were there, the delegates declined.

Staff writer Frederick Kunkle and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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