RICHMOND, FEB. 4 -- Del. Bernard S. Cohen, bucking centuries of tobacco tradition with the zeal of someone who hasn't touched a cigarette in 27 years, asked reluctant Virginia legislators today to enact some of the toughest antismoking regulations in the country.
Surrounded by 200 fuming employees of Philip Morris, the giant Richmond-based cigarette manufacturer, Cohen (D-Alexandria) outlined for two legislative committees his proposal to ban smoking in a variety of public places and require many businesses to create "reasonably substantial" smoke-free zones. Violators could face misdemeanor charges under the bill.
Cohen described his measure, which he later conceded cannot survive in its current stringent form, as a "public statement of respect and tolerance for the rights of others."
"This is a public health bill," Cohen told a standing-room-only crowd, most of whose members had been bused in for the occasion by Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker and Richmond's largest private employer.
Opponents of Cohen's proposed Clean Indoor Air Act said it would cost Virginia untold jobs and turn restaurateurs and other business people into antismoking police.
Further, they said, the act breaches what one spokesman called "the Virginia way," a near-mystical reverence for tradition that is frequently invoked in the General Assembly's hearing rooms.
"They are apple pie and motherhood-sounding ideas to impose somebody's will on another," said Jerry Jenkins, a Southside tobacco farmer and official of the state Farm Bureau Federation who recited the role that the "golden leaf" has long played in Virginia history.
"It's been the crop that put the bread on the table," Jenkins said at one point.
In a sense, Cohen's bill is a perfect illustration of the gulf that persists between reform-minded liberals from Northern Virginia, a region where a number of localities have no-smoking ordinances, and lawmakers from the state's agrarian communities.
Del. Lewis D. Parker Jr. (D-South Hill), an influential House member whose district includes many tobacco growers, told the committees he once became "inflamed" when a no-smoking rule prevented him from lighting up at a Williamsburg restaurant.
"I thought it was an insult to the very heritage of Williamsburg," Parker said.
Cohen brushed aside the romantic view of tobacco, saying 41 states have enacted at least some smoking restrictions because of concerns about the effect of secondhand smoke on nonsmokers.
The District of Columbia recently banned smoking in taxis and required restaurants to set aside 25 percent of their seating for nonsmokers.
In Maryland, legislators will soon consider at least four proposals to restrict smoking in retail and food stores, as well as restaurants and cafeterias with more than 50 seats.
State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield), a jogger who detests cigarette smoke, said he favored the concept of Cohen's bill but would vote against it because it is "too cumbersome and unrealistic."
"The bill's not going anywhere," Saslaw added.
Cohen predicted close votes in both the House and Senate committees, adding that he was willing to accept some changes to make the measure more palatable to rural legislators.
"Right now in the form it stands, we couldn't get it out of committee," said Cohen, who has not smoked since law school, when he would go through half a pack a day. But he added: "We purposely gave them something to chew on."