- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — The idea of even discussing a smoking ban for Virginia bars and restaurants was unthinkable just years ago, considering the state’s earliest economy was based on tobacco. But anti-smoking groups and health advocates are again pushing for a law to end smoking in buildings where people eat and drink, and this year a governor is helping lead the charge.

In a recent Senate Education and Health Committee meeting, Dr. William A. Hazel Jr. recited a list of potentially deadly compounds in cigarette smoke that included ammonia, nail-polish remover and even traces of polonium-210 — the radioactive element used to kill former KGB officer and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in 2006.

But passing a smoking ban during the 2008 General Assembly session remains unlikely.

Despite the medical findings, tobacco has broad political support in Virginia, and the Richmond-based Philip Morris’ cigarette factory is the largest in the world.

Tobacco companies and tobacco growers contributed $287,000, while restaurants gave about $218,000 to candidates in the 2007 state House and Senate elections, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, an independent, nonprofit tracker of money in state politics.

Philip Morris opposes the bill, preferring instead that restaurateurs and barkeepers banish smoking as a result of market conditions, not government fiat. Even supporters of the bill acknowledge that as many as 80 percent of the state’s eateries have gone smoke-free to attract a clientele increasingly averse to smoke.

Legislators in both parties understand the sentiment.

“It seems to me that the marketplace is determining this issue already, regardless of what the General Assembly does or doesn’t do,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat. “The market is responsive to customer interests.”

In addition, tobacco is far from the dominant cash crop it once was in Virginia. From the first settlement in Jamestown, it was so vital from Colonial times into the 20th century that ceiling murals in the 200-year-old Capitol rotunda depict garlands of the golden-brown leaf.

Tobacco production decreased from 53,000 acres and total value of $207.5 million in 1997 to less than 20,000 acres and $71 million in value in 2006, the latest year for which U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics are available.

“The tobacco lobby represents a smaller part of Virginia geographically,” said Mr. Houck, chairman of the Senate Education and Health Committee. “The whole tobacco industry has diminished in Virginia, and where it’s diminished is as the urban and suburban areas have grown. The public is getting more concerned with the use of tobacco.”

Until four years ago, efforts to increase Virginia’s 2.5-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes — then the lowest in the country — had failed perennially, too. But in the midst of a state fiscal crisis, taxing cigarettes became more palatable and legislators reluctantly increased the tax by 27.5 cents to save an out-of-balance budget.

Former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, led the battle. His successor, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, leads this one.

Mr. Kaine has said his first interest is the workers who inhale the smoke of others on the job and suffer health consequences later.

“Traditionally, I’m against a complete ban on all smoking in all public facilities,” he said.

The governor said the legislation has a chance this year, citing efforts the first two years of his term to restrict smoking. When he issued an executive order to ban smoking in all government buildings shortly after he took office, he said, “I was surprised that I didn’t get pushback from the tobacco industry.”

He was even more encouraged last spring after he amended a bill that would have allowed smoking only in restaurants that display conspicuously posted signs that state: “Smoking Permitted.” Mr. Kaine then made it an outright restaurant-smoking prohibition. The House rejected the amendment, on a 59-40 vote.

“I was surprised it got as many votes as it got, and a lot of delegates came up to me afterward and said, ‘Hey, we didn’t vote against this just to vote against it. You change a few details here and there and we might be able to support it,’ ” Mr. Kaine said.

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