Friday, February 15, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — A last-gasp effort to ban smoking in restaurants and most other public places died yesterday in a House of Delegates subcommittee.

The same panel that previously rejected several House bills to curb smoking did the same to a batch of Senate proposals. The voice vote was unanimous.

House rules, unlike those of the Senate, allow subcommittees to kill legislation rather than send it to a full committee for a recorded vote. Gov. Tim Kaine, a proponent of the restaurant smoking ban, accused delegates of ducking a volatile issue.

“These guys don’t want to be on the record on a matter like that,” Mr. Kaine told reporters after the subcommittee vote.

The same panel rejected Mr. Kaine’s restaurant smoking ban last year. The governor said he is unaware of any way to revive the issue before the General Assembly’s scheduled March 8 adjournment.

The subcommittee heard familiar arguments from both sides of the issue. Supporters of the ban argued that government has a responsibility to protect residents from the health hazards of secondhand smoke. Opponents said government should butt out of private business decisions.

“This is an issue of choice and property owners’ rights,” Barrett Hardiman of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association told the General Laws subcommittee.

He said two-thirds of Virginia restaurants already prohibit smoking because “they are listening to what their customers want and are changing on their own.”

Representatives of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association and the Cigar Association of Virginia also spoke against the bills.

Among those representing the other side were a breast cancer survivor, a University of Virginia student put off by the smoky interiors of bars and restaurants in a popular district known as the Corner, and a musician who must endure secondhand smoke in nightclubs.

The American Lung Association, the March of Dimes and the Virginia Group to Alleviate Smoking in Public also supported the bills.

But perhaps the most compelling testimony came from Sen. Ralph S. Northam, a physician and co-sponsor of the restaurant smoking ban. He described operating on a smoker whose lungs “looked literally like black soot.” She died two days later.

“I vowed at that time early in my career that I would never put a cigarette in my mouth and would stay away from secondhand smoke as much as possible and do whatever I can to keep other people away from secondhand smoke,” said Mr. Northam, Norfolk Democrat.

He also spoke of delivering heartbreaking news to the parents of victims of sudden infant death syndrome. Secondhand smoke increases the risk of SIDS, he said.

Subcommittee members, however, were not persuaded.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax Republican, said he would be willing to consider tighter smoking regulations if the state ever establishes separate categories for bars and restaurants. The current law only defines restaurants, some of which are licensed to sell alcohol.

But he said legislation sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington Democrat, to ban smoking in nearly all indoor public spaces goes way too far.

“I’m not really against doing something, but I would never vote for a bill that does it in all buildings,” Mr. Albo said. “If a man wants to smoke a cigar in his office he ought to be able to.”

The subcommittee also rejected bills allowing localities, either statewide or just in one specific region, to enact their own smoking bans.

Anne Morrow Donley, co-founder of Virginia GASP, criticized the delegates for putting public health in the hands of private enterprise.

“If they had been in government in the 1860s they’d have said each plantation owner can free slaves if they want to,” Miss Donley fumed. “They have no compassion.”

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