With an air of nostalgia, Virginia enacts smoking ban

Virginia smokers discuss the statewide ban on smoking in restaurants on the eve of the ban.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It was a gentlemen's protest: Scores of cigar-smokers filed into an upscale steakhouse in Reston on Monday night to light up their stogies over cocktails and beef Wellington and lament that the smoking police had finally come to, of all places, Virginia.

Four hundred years after John Rolfe planted the nation's first commercial tobacco in Virginia, and decades after state leaders paid homage to the crop by carving its leaves into the ceiling of the old state Senate chamber, smoking officially becomes illegal Tuesday in the state's 17,500 bars and restaurants.

Although the suit-and-tie crowd at Morton's exuded a sort of "Mad Men" cool, it wasn't entirely hard to see why some might have been glad this day has finally come. A fragrant, heavy haze rose as 150 regulars worked their way through the four cigars included with a meal organized as a last hurrah for Virginia smokers.

"I've always said, if there's a state that would never pass a smoking ban, it's Virginia," said Manassas resident Ed Bennett, leaning on the polished wooden bar with a cocktail cigar in his right hand. "I lost a lot of bets on that one."

Morton's wasn't the only restaurant marking the occasion with a bit of celebratory nostalgia. At Jimmy's Old Town Tavern in Herndon, a Camel rep handed out free cigarettes, and customers were treated to an airing of an old Winston TV ad featuring Fred and Barney from "The Flintstones." Owner Jimmy Cirrito sold off his round glass ashtrays for $3 apiece, with the proceeds to be donated to the American Cancer Society.

Under the law, owners may permit smoking on an outdoor patio or in a walled-off, separately ventilated area. Otherwise, they must throw out the ashtrays and put up "No Smoking" signs -- or risk a $25 fine.

Virginia's law is in some ways catching up with what has been a reality in much of the state, especially in Northern Virginia, where most restaurants went smoke-free long ago. By February, when the legislature finally passed the ban after years of lobbying by anti-smoking advocates, about 66 percent of restaurants had already gone smoke-free in response to customer demand. A week ago, that proportion was about 75 percent.

Still, it is a stunning change for Virginia, where the nation's first commercial tobacco plant was cultivated in 1612 and where lawmakers and lobbyists representing tobacco interests have long held sway in state politics. Tobacco was the state's top cash crop for centuries and remained so until 2004.

"It wouldn't be any stretch to say that, aside from Virginia's people, tobacco was the single most important element in Virginia's history since English settlement," said Paul Levengood, president and chief executive of the Virginia Historical Society.

Virginia joins the District, Maryland and dozens of cities and states that have adopted similar -- and, in some cases, more stringent -- restaurant smoking bans. And it won't be the last. Several places plan to ban smoking in restaurants next year, including North Carolina, where tobacco roots run as deep as in Virginia.

Advocates say the bans are an acknowledgment that smoking can lead to cancer, that secondhand smoke threatens restaurant workers' health and that smoking is not the accepted social norm it once was.

"It was inevitable," said Sid Fuchs, a regular customer at the Reston Morton's. "To be honest, I would have thought this would have happened a long time ago. We were given a gift in Virginia. It's almost like we've been given an extension."

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