Critics Say Smoking Bill Is Weak Ban

Exemptions, Size Of Fines Faulted

In Blacksburg, Virginia tobacco farmer Jason Clary fears that another tax could force him to consider a new career in order to support his family. In Fredericksburg, Norma Lenox is celebrating a ban on the same secondhand smoke that caused her lung cancer. Megan Rossman/
By Fredrick Kunkle and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 16, 2009

When Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Republican House Speaker William J. Howell announced that they had quietly brokered a compromise that would ban smoking in the state's bars and restaurants, anti-smoking advocates did not rejoice. They read the fine print.

And they didn't like what they found.

They said vague language in the ban allowed restaurants to create separate ventilated rooms for smokers but didn't define the standards for such a room. And they said the fine for ignoring the ban was tiny -- $25 for a violation. The advocates realized, said Cathleen S. Grzesiek, director of government relations for the American Heart Association, that they were very far from their goal of banning smoking in all public indoor spaces.

"This really isn't a victory for public health," Grzesiek said.

Tobacco industry lobbyists weren't happy, either. Glynn Loope, executive director of Cigar Rights of America, said that when the Internet lighted up with news of the ban, he was so mad he "almost threw the computer across the room."

For years, critics of Kaine and Howell (Stafford) have argued that the two showed a striking lack of interest in brokering legislative deals. Now, they have brought the General Assembly closer to passing a restaurant smoking ban in Virginia, a significant political and cultural shift for a state whose history has been intertwined with tobacco for centuries. The deal they struck is taking heavy fire from advocates on both sides.

As Kaine and Howell have pushed to win final approval of the ban, mistrust has pervaded the state Capitol.

Loope said he sees Kaine's efforts as the unbridled pursuit of a signature legislative victory. "It's as close to a legacy project as there is," he said.

Teresa Gregson, a lobbyist for health advocates, sees the hidden hand of big tobacco in the ban. "It would be naive for anyone in Virginia to believe that anything comes through the General Assembly without Philip Morris's blessing," she said.

The seeds of the compromise bill were planted in the fall, when Philip Morris lobbyists distributed the outlines of what they would support in any proposal to ban smoking in bars and restaurants in Virginia.

The company wanted a ban to apply only to establishments that catered to people younger than 18 and to exclude outdoor patio areas, cigar bars, private clubs and restaurants hosting private functions, such as wedding receptions. The company also proposed that smoking be allowed in bar areas and in rooms that were either ventilated or separated from the main dining area, according to legislators who have seen the Philip Morris memo.

About the same time, Loope said, the Kaine administration asked him if his clients would get behind a ban on smoking until 10 p.m. Loope said no.

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