- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UPDATED:

Virginia lawmakers are set for a final vote Tuesday on legislation to ban smoking in restaurants and bars, in a state that was the first to harvest tobacco.

“This thing has been going on for a long time, and if you want to solve the problem and move the ball forward and still protect people’s rights, you vote for the bill,” said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican.

The Republican-controlled House reached agreement on an amended version of the legislation Monday and is scheduled to take a final vote Tuesday, following a compromise last week between Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican.

Later Monday evening, the House weakened and then approved smoking ban legislation that already had passed the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The legislation bans smoking in restaurants and bars statewide, with exceptions for such establishments as private clubs and places with separate, ventilated smoking rooms.

Mr. Kaine initially had called for a more comprehensive smoking ban, but accepted the compromise to improve a smoking bill’s chances of passing through the General Assembly for the first time since one was proposed in 2005.

English colonist John Rolfe discovered in 1612 that tobacco would grow well in Virginia and could be sold for a big profit back in England. The crop dominated the colony’s economy from 1622 and has been regarded as a major force behind the prosperity of the colony, and then the state.

Today, Virginia remains home to the biggest tobacco-product manufacturer in the country, Phillip Morris USA, headquartered in Richmond.

“It has been a thorny issue for a long time,” Mr. Howell said while announcing the compromise. “But by listening to one another, and by reaching out to others with differing views, we have made real progress on this matter.”

House lawmakers Monday also approved amendments that weakened the original legislation. They include changes that relax requirements for smoking rooms, delay the ban’s start date from July 1 to Jan. 1, 2010 and in the House version of the bill, allow restaurants to permit smoking when minors are not allowed inside.

The Senate could remove the amendments. Lawmakers then could meet to resolve the differences in the respective measures, and Mr. Kaine also would have the option of amending the bill if it reaches his desk.

Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the administration was pleased with the bill’s progress, but not with the amendments made by the House.

“We’ll continue to work on this issue,” he said.

Passage of the bill would likely be considered Mr. Kaine’s biggest legislative success, but would come in the final year of his term - one marked by political gains for the Democratic Party in the state, but few political victories.

For example, Mr. Kaine’s campaign promise of universal pre-kindergarten education in the state had to be scaled back amid partisan opposition and a tight budget. He also has been foiled in attempts to close the so-called “gun-show loophole” on firearms purchases and find a solution to the state’s transportation-funding crisis.

But the bipartisan compromise with Mr. Howell and the smoking bill’s pending approval by the House - where similar efforts previously have met with failure - are expected to give the governor a tangible legislative legacy once he leaves office.

If the bill becomes law, Virginia will join 23 other states and the District in requiring restaurants and bars to be smoke-free, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Seven more states require most workplaces - including restaurants - to be smoke-free, but they exempt bars.

Three others exempt bars and restaurants from smoke-free laws if they don’t admit patrons under the age of 18 or 21.

Virginia ranked fourth in the country last year with its production of nearly 46 million pounds of tobacco - behind North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

North Carolina is considering a bill that would ban smoking in public places, according to the NCSL, while Tennessee was considering a measure that would remove an exception to its smoking ban for age-restricted venues.

While championed by Mr. Kaine and Mr. Howell, Virginia’s smoking-ban proposal has produced plenty of opposition and unlikely bedfellows.

Greg Mathe, a spokesman for Altria Group - the parent company of Phillip Morris USA - acknowledged that the bill attempts a compromise, but said “some of the provisions go too far” and would result in significant costs for establishment owners, who would have to put in ventilation systems or build smoking rooms.

“We believe that a complete ban that treats every restaurant in the same manner doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Members of such organizations as the American Lung Association in Virginia and the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association also have spoken against the bill.

David DeBiasi, director of advocacy and public education for the ALA in Virginia, said the ban isn’t comprehensive enough and that its penalties are too light. Those caught violating the new law would be fined $25.

“We’re not happy with this bill, and we hope before the governor signs it that it would become more comprehensive,” he said.

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