Kaine heralds dawn of smoke-free Va. restaurants

AP News
Posted: Dec 01, 2009 2:46 PM

The restaurant smoking ban that took effect Tuesday across Virginia is a healthy development _ literally _ in a state that has revered tobacco since Jamestown's settlers began raising it 400 years ago, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said.

In a statewide victory lap touting the most conspicuous policy triumph of his final year in office, Kaine planned to show up at four eateries to celebrate the compromise that the 2009 General Assembly passed over the objection of Virginia's muscular tobacco lobby.

"This is a historic day," Kaine told a small gathering at Hamilton's at First and Main, a high-end restaurant in downtown Charlottesville that has banned smoking since Bill and Kate Hamilton opened it 14 years ago.

"Virginia was the home for the start of the tobacco industry in the New World. Those settlers who came to Jamestown couldn't find the gold they were looking for and they couldn't figure out how to raise crops that would economically support the growing commonwealth until they hit on tobacco. Tobacco was the cash crop," said Kaine, who is barred from seeking re-election by Virginia's Constitution. He leaves the office on Jan. 16 to Republican Bob McDonnell.

Virginia joins a growing number of states that have enacted laws to limit smoking. Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have laws banning restaurant smoking, according to the American Lung Association.

The Democratic governor and Democratic National Committee chairman had sought an outright restaurant smoking ban for two years. It never survived a Republican House of Delegates, with cigarette giant Philip Morris and the rest of the tobacco industry battling it. Philip Morris operates the cigarette factory that supplies the world with Marlboros a few miles from the Virginia Capitol. Frescoes of golden-brown tobacco leaves adorn the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda.

The breakthrough came in January when Republican House Speaker William J. Hamilton approached Kaine with a compromise. The bill, sponsored by Del. John Cosgrove, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, eventually passed with bipartisan support.

The new law allows smoking only in separately ventilated rooms, away from nonsmoking patrons. It also permits smoking on outdoor patio areas, and private membership clubs such as Elks Clubs or American Legion posts are exempt. Violators are subject to a $25 civil fine.

The state's restaurateurs opposed the bill, preferring an outright ban on grounds that wealthy chain restaurants would have the capital to make the necessary adjustments that small, family owned eateries could not.

Restaurant industry lobbyist Thomas Lisk estimated that only about one-tenth of restaurants that still allowed smoking would make the modifications required to accommodate smokers.

About 70 percent of Virginia's restaurants had already banned smoking voluntarily, Lisk said.

The Medical Society of Virginia had lobbied for several years for a smoking ban. The organization's immediate past president, Dr. Tom Eppes, said secondhand smoke kills about 1,700 Virginians every year.

Kaine said he pushed hard for a ban because of the damage done to employees in bars and restaurants where concentrations of cigarette smoke are several times higher than they are in offices or residences where occupants smoke.

Eppes, a family practitioner in Forest, Va., said not only was the smoking ban good public policy, it had strong and widespread support, even if supporters weren't vocal about it.

"I knew we had done the right thing when my wife and I went out to dinner on March 3 at a restaurant in Lynchburg and the waitress asked us, 'Smoking or nonsmoking?' I said, 'You know, after Dec. 1, you never have to ask that question again,' and she turned with this big smile and said, 'Yeah!'"