More than 60 restaurants in Alexandria have voluntarily agreed to ban all smoking on their premises. That means no smoking anywhere -- in the restaurant, at the bar, even at the tables outside.
"It means if people want to smoke, they'll have to leave," said Denise Yeager, who is spearheading the "Proud to Be Smoke Free" campaign for the Alexandria Health Department.
Yeager said the statewide campaign reflects an awareness that secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States and is responsible for the deaths of 53,000 non-smokers every year, about 1,700 of those in Virginia.
"We feel this will definitely benefit not only the patrons who go to a restaurant for a great-tasting meal but also for the employees who won't have to be around secondhand smoke," she said.
The city's campaign, paid for with an $8,300 grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Tobacco Use Control Project and sponsored by the Virginia Department of Health, started in mid-July. Yeager sent out bright-yellow postcards heralding the campaign to the more than 400 Alexandria restaurants, and, in alphabetical order, started calling them. She's about halfway through the list and hopes to contact more before the campaign ends this fall. She has also walked King Street and Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, talking up the campaign to restaurant owners and managers.
In exchange for agreeing to the ban, Alexandria restaurants, like those participating throughout the state, will get to post certificates and the smoke-free campaign logo of smiling blue and yellow dinner plates. They will also have their names listed on the Virginia Department of Health's Smoke-Free Dining Web site and in a brochure that the city plans to make available at hotels, recreation centers, libraries and other public places.
Arlington is not participating in the "Proud to Be Smoke Free Campaign." But a 15-year-old county ordinance requires that establishments with 50 or more seats set aside 25 percent of the area for non-smokers, said Richard Cole, the county's environmental health supervisor.
"It's working pretty well," Cole said. "What we're finding is that most facilities have much more [non-smoking seats] than that. Let's face it, they're in the business to make money, and the majority of people aren't smoking these days."
In Fairfax County, nearly 80 restaurants have agreed to the 100 percent ban and are listed on the state's Smoke-Free Dining Web site.
Alexandria's move comes as more states and local jurisdictions throughout the United States are banning smoking in restaurants and other public places. California, Delaware and Connecticut and the cities of New York, Austin and Boston are among those that have instituted such bans.
Locally, Montgomery County, after trying and failing to do so in 1999, passed legislation in 2003 to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. The D.C. Council is considering similar comprehensive legislation, pushed by the local Smoke-Free D.C. group, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has signaled his support. Nearly 200 restaurants in the city already voluntarily ban all smoking.
More than 75 percent of Virginians do not smoke, according to the Virginia Department of Health. With that in mind, a state Senate committee narrowly approved smoking ban legislation last February. The measure was soundly defeated by the full Senate. But it was seen as nothing short of historic that a smoking ban had made it through a legislative committee in a state where tobacco is still the main cash crop, cigarette-maker Philip Morris employs thousands and the statehouse ceiling in Richmond is adorned with tobacco leaves.
The last time Virginia lawmakers considered smoking restrictions was in 1990 when, after fierce disputes, they passed a law requiring larger restaurants to limit smoking to designated areas and banned smoking in elevators, cashier lines and emergency rooms.
Under the state constitution, local jurisdictions are prohibited from passing laws that are more restrictive than state law. That is why Alexandria's smoking ban is voluntary.
Many of the Alexandria restaurants that joined the campaign already had strict no-smoking policies in effect. Of the 60, only seven restaurants actually changed their smoking policies: Cafe Marianna, Charlie Chiang's, Hana Tokyo, Los Tios, Nickell's & Scheffler, the Starbucks on Union Street and Thai Old Town.
Some places, like Starbucks, used to allow smoking in the outdoor seating area. At Hana Tokyo on Duke Street, smokers were welcome in the bar only. Now, that will change.
"The main thing is that having a non-smoking restaurant is better for our customers' health," manager Yuping Wu said.
He said some regulars are unhappy when told they can no longer smoke in the lounge, and he worries that he will lose their business. But he's going ahead, anyway.
"We don't want to cook unhealthy food for the customers," he said. "And we don't want to provide an unpleasant environment. It's the same thing."
But over on King Street, the staff at Landini Brothers said they thought long and hard before deciding not to join the smoke-free campaign. They have smoke eaters and ionizers in the bar, where smoking is allowed. Only one of the restaurant's five dining rooms is designated for smoking.
"We've been here for 30 years and we have a core clientele that likes a little cigar after lunch or dinner or a cigarette at the bar. We listened to them, too," said owner Piero Landini. "I think we will try to satisfy everyone. That will be our position."
Last week, not far from Landini Brothers, Margo Heegeman stood outside under a portico to get out of the rain and took a last drag of a cigarette. She is in her sixties, has been smoking since she was 14 and said she's not about to stop. The smoking ban is inconvenient, she said.
"But 23 percent of the population smokes and the other 77 percent don't. So they win," she said with a shrug. "But I go to restaurants for the food, not to smoke."