Thursday, January 25, 2007

RICHMOND — Smokers in the nation’s fourth-leading tobacco-growing state would be banned from lighting up in restaurants and most other indoor public places if a bill endorsed yesterday by a Virginia Senate committee becomes law.

The Education and Health Committee voted 9-5 to send Sen. J. Brandon Bell II’s bill to the Senate floor, where similar legislation narrowly passed last year only to die in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

That same subcommittee later yesterday rejected smoking-ban legislation sponsored by four House members, but unanimously endorsed a bill that would require restaurants that allow smoking to post a sign at the entrance saying so. The measure would lift the requirement that restaurants have a no-smoking section, although they could still do so voluntarily.

“I believe that within 24 months a majority of restaurants will decide to go smoke-free,” said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith of Salem, the bill’s sponsor.

The subcommittee also rejected a bill to require restaurants that allow smoking and are built after July 1, 2008, to have a separate nonsmoking room with its own ventilation system. The measure, sponsored by Delegate John A. Cosgrove, Chesapeake Republican, died on a 2-2 vote.

At the Senate committee hearing on Mr. Bell’s bill, the Roanoke Republican said the smoking ban is needed to protect Virginians from the health hazards of secondhand smoke, which has been proven to cause cancer and other diseases.

“It is a powerful carcinogen,” said Dr. Antonio Longo, an Alexandria pulmonary specialist who was the only witness Mr. Bell brought before a committee that heard extensive testimony on the issue last year.

Philip Morris USA, the nation’s No. 1 cigarette maker, is based in Richmond.

According to the anti-smoking group American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, 19 states ban smoking in restaurants and 15 of those prohibit lighting up in all workplaces. Mr. Bell said four states approved bans just last year.

“There is a great deal of momentum across the country for this measure,” he said.

But Christopher M. Savvides, owner of the Black Angus Restaurant in Virginia Beach, said he should be allowed to determine his own smoking policy.

“It’s not about smoking, it’s about my right as business to do what I need to do to attract customers,” Mr. Savvides said.

He said many restaurants have gone smoke-free voluntarily while others continue to accommodate smokers, providing plenty of options for Virginians no matter what their smoking preference.

Julia Hammond, a lobbyist for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, emphasized the same point.

“The current system is working,” she said. “There are several different types of smoking environments for customers.”

Mr. Bell said many restaurant owners have told him they would like to prohibit smoking but are reluctant to do so without a statewide ban because they fear being put at a competitive disadvantage.

He also said the legislation would protect workers as well as customers. He said one-fifth of all restaurant workers are teenagers who often have little or no choice about where they work or whether they are assigned to smoking or nonsmoking sections.

Mr. Bell’s bill would prohibit smoking in nearly all buildings or enclosed areas frequented by the public.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, has signaled support for a restaurant smoking ban but reluctance to extend the prohibition to all private workplaces. However, Mr. Bell has said he is encouraged by Mr. Kaine’s decision in October to ban smoking in most state offices and state-owned vehicles.

• Minimum wage

Legislation that would have boosted the minimum wage in Virginia from $5.15 an hour to $8.15 by 2010 was blocked by a House subcommittee yesterday, and efforts to resuscitate it in full committee later in the day failed.

Five Republican members of a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee, meeting at daybreak, outvoted four Democrats in rejecting several minimum wage bills that were consolidated in House Bill 2004.

In accord with House procedural rules, there was no official record of the vote.

Yesterday afternoon, when Democrats invoked the right to call the bill before the full committee, it failed on a largely party line 10-10 vote. Legislation can emerge from a committee only on a majority vote.

Although the committee vote effectively dooms state efforts to boost base pay for the lowest-paid workers, Democrats made the most of what they think is an issue that can help them reduce or reverse Republican majorities in the House and Senate in November’s legislative elections.

“This is an enormously important issue to the state’s lowest-wage earners,” said Delegate Brian J. Moran, Alexandria Democrat and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “It affects not only their pocketbooks but their politics. The [Republican] majority has shown an insensitivity to those trying to scrape by.”

• State apple?

Virginia might end up with a state fruit — the apple — but not any specific kind of apple.

Delegate Kristen J. Amundson, Fairfax County Democrat, brought her bill to the House Rules Committee Wednesday on behalf of fourth-graders at Waynewood Elementary School in Fairfax County.

Originally, Miss Amundson and Sen. Linda T. Puller, Fairfax County Democrat, offered bills that would designate the Ginger Gold apple as the state’s official fruit. Mrs. Puller’s measure is pending in the Senate.

Concerns raised by agricultural interests have prompted Miss Amundson to amend her bill to no specific variety of apple.

Miss Amundson told the committee that she doesn’t care whether lawmakers adopt a state fruit. She said it’s more important that fourth-graders understand that elected officials take their concerns seriously as residents of the commonwealth.

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