By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009
RICHMOND, Feb. 19 -- The Virginia General Assembly gave final approval Thursday to a plan that prohibits smoking in most of the state's bars and restaurants, handing Gov. Timothy M. Kaine one of his first significant legislative victories.
Kaine and others have pushed for a prohibition for years. But its passage never seemed likely given that Virginia is home to the world's largest cigarette manufacturer and tobacco is so intertwined with state history that images of tobacco leaves are painted on the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda.
"I think it . . . demonstrates persistence can be a virtue," Kaine said at a news conference. "I learned early on you've got to stick with something you believe in and maybe you can make it happen."
Starting Dec. 1, smoking will be banned in most restaurants and bars, although it would be permitted in private clubs, on some outdoor patios and in separate ventilated rooms.
"It's just a big step in the right direction for the health of Virginians," said Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), a pediatric neurologist.
With no debate, the Democrat-controlled Senate voted 27 to 13 for the proposal. Hours later, the Republican-controlled House approved it 60 to 39. The bill will be sent to Kaine, who said he will sign it into law.
Tobacco was once the foundation of Virginia's economy. The state is still home to thousands of tobacco farms. The proposal was strongly opposed by the powerful tobacco and business communities and by some anti-smoking activists who did not think it was comprehensive enough.
"You're going to have some people happy with the compromise and some people that aren't," Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) said. "Some might think we didn't go far enough. Some people think we went too far."
The state has repeatedly resisted efforts to curtail smoking in public places, even as health concerns over secondhand smoke prompted 23 other states and the District to enact prohibitions. Virginia will become the first state in the South to ban smoking in both restaurants and bars.
"It's going to save a lot of lives," said Keith Hare of the Medical Society of Virginia. "Our hope is that one day all indoor spaces in the commonwealth will be smoke-free."
Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) spent weeks behind closed doors negotiating the unexpected compromise. The deal represented a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation between the state's two most powerful leaders.
Many legislators from rural, tobacco-growing areas in the southern part of the state joined with the most conservative members to oppose the bill. They objected to what they said was an assault on individual freedom.
Currently, bars and restaurants impose their own smoking rules.
"I believe very strongly in the power of the free market to resolve the collective wishes of our society," Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said.
In Virginia and across the nation, public sentiment in recent years has shifted rapidly in favor of such bans. A 2006 Gallup poll found that even most smokers believed that restrictions in public places were justified.