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Hopes for Public Smoking Ban Are Snuffed Out

February 14, 2008

Hopes for Public Smoking Ban Are Snuffed Out

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008; B05

RICHMOND, Feb. 14 -- The Virginia House of Delegates defeated several proposals Thursday to prohibit smoking in restaurants, stores, offices and other public places, effectively killing all anti-smoking legislation for this year's General Assembly session.

For the fourth year in a row, the Republican-controlled House killed a smoking ban in the state, where tobacco farming and cigarette manufacturing have been integral to the economy.

The District and more than 20 states, including Maryland, have banned smoking in restaurants and other public places because of health concerns.

Claire Mullins, a spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, said that it took Maryland several years to pass a bill and that it will probably take just as long, or longer, for Virginia to do so.

"Smoking tends to be a cultural thing, ingrained in our psyche," she said.

The House decision, which was not entirely unexpected, was a setback for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who had made a smoking ban one of his priorities for the 60-day legislative session.

A subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee considered four bills that the Senate had passed, including one favored by Kaine that would have prohibited smoking in restaurants and bars.

The six-member subcommittee, controlled by Republicans, did not debate the bills before Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) suggested that they be set aside. Committee members agreed after chairman Thomas D. Gear (R-Hampton) had repeatedly asked why restaurants do not ban smoking.

"I'm sympathetic, but I don't see something I can live with," Albo said.

Last week, the same subcommittee killed eight similar proposals from House members. Thursday's action means all the anti-smoking bills introduced in the 60-day legislative session are dead.

Kaine said it's "not surprising" that the bills were killed in a subcommittee without a recorded vote. "These guys don't want to be on the record with something like that," he said. "The leadership of the House is very afraid to have this matter voted on in an up-or-down vote. They want to bury it in subcommittee."

The proposals varied. Some included an outright ban in all public places or only in restaurants; one measure would have given local jurisdictions the option to enact smoking bans.

The bills were supported by many health organizations, including the national lung, cancer and heart associations, but were opposed by the tobacco, restaurant and retail industries and groups that protest excessive government intervention.

About two-thirds of restaurants in Virginia ban smoking. In Northern Virginia, that figure is 80 percent, and in Fairfax County, almost 95 percent.

"They are listening to what their customers want. They are doing this on their own," said Barrett Hardiman, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents about 1,100 restaurants in the state. "These bills are not necessary. The market is responding."

But Lorene E. Alba, a former restaurant owner in Hampton who works for the American Lung Association, told the committee that restaurant managers are worried about losing customers who smoke and need the state to act. "The industry is not able to make this decision" itself, she said.

Virginia law requires restaurants that seat more than 50 people to set aside a section for nonsmokers.

Polls show strong support for a smoking ban, especially in Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia.

"We were sent here to Richmond to represent our constituents," said Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), a pediatric neurosurgeon who introduced one of the bills. "I ask all of you to join me to do what constituents want."

The proposals were designed in large part to protect the health of restaurant workers. Studies show that they are exposed to higher levels of secondhand smoke than people in homes or offices. But opponents say the bills unfairly single out restaurants, most of which have banned smoking voluntarily.

Both sides of the debate agree that smoking bans have gained momentum because of actions by other states and a study in 2006 by the U.S. surgeon general that concluded that secondhand smoke causes death and disease.

The Virginia Department of Health estimates that secondhand smoke is responsible for 1,700 deaths in the state each year.

"We want clean, healthy air," said John O'Donnell, part of the Rachel Leyco Band in Richmond, which often plays in smoke-filled bars.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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