The Virginia Senate voted Monday to ban smoking in restaurants and virtually all other public places, an extraordinary sign of cultural change in a state that is home to the worldwide headquarters of Philip Morris and whose agricultural economy has been rooted in tobacco farming for almost 400 years.
The bill is unlikely to survive review in the House of Delegates. Yet its passage on the floor of the Senate -- where smoking has never been formally banned and lawmakers lit up openly even until the late 1990s -- signaled mounting popular support for smoking restrictions.
The chamber narrowly approved the measure after a short but intense debate over consumer choice and the public health risks of secondhand smoke.
Senate Bill 648, sponsored by a Republican from Roanoke, would make smoking illegal in all public workplaces with the exception of certain tobacco stores and offices. The prohibition would extend to bars, restaurants and bowling alleys.
"This is not about whether I prefer or do not prefer the smell of smoke," said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, the sponsor. "This is about public health. . . . The research has come forward over the years, and it's shown us that secondhand cigarette smoke is a very insidious health problem."
The American Cancer Society said the Senate vote is a dramatic victory in efforts to educate the public about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
"This shows that Virginia is ready to move its way to where the mainstream is on health issues," said Keenan Caldwell, director of government relations for the group's regional office. "People are starting to see, even in Virginia and other tobacco-growing states, that there is proven science about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke."
Smoking limits gain popularity
Caldwell said the shift has come as lawmakers realize the growing popularity of smoking limits, especially in voter-rich suburbs. Radio ads paid for by the cancer society and several other health groups have been playing in Richmond and Virginia Beach for two weeks, urging residents to contact lawmakers to express support.
"It makes you really pay attention," Bell said. "I may have reservations about increased regulations [on businesses], but this is something that people seem to want to be regulated."
If the Virginia bill were to become law, public areas in virtually the entire Washington region could soon be smoke-free. The D.C. Council approved a restaurant ban, which is now under review by Congress. Likewise, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have eliminated indoor smoking, and the Maryland legislature is contemplating extending the rules to workplaces statewide.
The Virginia ban would include banks, bars, educational facilities, health care facilities, hotel and motel lobbies, laundromats, public transportation, reception areas, retail food production and marketing establishments, retail services establishments, retail stores, shopping malls, sports arenas, theaters and waiting rooms. Hotels could also set aside no more than 25 percent of their rooms for smokers.
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) promised to oppose the bill. Kevin Hall, spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), said the governor also opposes a statewide ban. But, he said, "it's a little soon for a veto threat."
Philip Morris stands by
Virginia is the nation's third top tobacco-growing state, and the leaf remains the state's second-most profitable crop. Sculpted wreaths of tobacco leaves ring the ceiling of the Senate chamber in the Capitol. And just a few minutes south of the statehouse, the Philip Morris Richmond plant produces about 700 million cigarettes every day. In the summer, the smell of processed tobacco often hangs in the air of the capital city.
For years in Richmond, a single word of opposition from Philip Morris lobbyists was enough to doom a proposed bill. But as in other states considering similar bans, the company this year took no public stand on the measure and declined to work against it. "We are currently reviewing the legislation," said Jennifer Golisch, a spokeswoman for the company.
Instead, opposition has been spearheaded by the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents restaurants. The group lobbied vigorously against an early version of the bill that would have given localities the ability to regulate indoor smoking, complaining that the option would lead to a patchwork of regulations and pit businesses in neighboring counties against one another.
So Bell moved forward with the statewide smoking ban and picked up enough support to pass the bill, 21 to 18.
Those who voted against the measure said the marketplace is already pushing many restaurants to ban smoking, without government regulation. They said businesses should have the right to cater to their customers.
"We're talking about a legal product that's licensed and sold in Virginia -- that's taxed and taxed and taxed," said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pennsylvania), who represents tobacco growers. "Now we're saying we know better than people who operate their own businesses what they can do."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.