In tobacco-loving Virginia, bars to quit cold-turkey

RICHMOND, Va. — The bluish haze that has hung over the Third Street Diner’s bar and booths for decades finally lifts next month as a new anti-smoking law takes hold in Virginia, a huge shift for a state whose tobacco habit dates to the Jamestown settlement some 400 years ago.

Starting Dec. 1, Virginia will join dozens of other states that ban smoking in restaurants. Restaurants in Virginia will be allowed to have a smoking area only if they segregate smokers into rooms with ventilation systems separate from those that heat and cool nonsmoking patrons.

For most of its history dating to colonial times, tobacco was Virginia’s premier crop and economic staple. Frescoes of the golden-brown leaf adorn the ceiling of the Capitol rotunda, a short cab ride from the massive factory that supplies the world with

Yet this year, strict new curbs on lighting up where food and drink are sold were enacted by lawmakers in Richmond and in Raleigh, N.C., major tobacco capitals where cigarette giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have been accustomed to getting their way.

North Carolina’s law takes effect Jan. 2 and will allow smoking on outdoor patios and in private membership clubs, as does Virginia’s law. Unlike Virginia, North Carolina law will not allow any smoking in restaurants.

Virginia restaurant industry lobbyist Tom Lisk expects only about 10 percent of the state’s restaurants to retain smoking areas.

“A number of them, because of that requirement in the law to create or construct a separate room, don’t have the wherewithal to do it, so they’re just banning smoking altogether,” said Lisk, who last winter opposed the bill.

Some, like Williamsburg blues and jazz nightspot owner Randall Plaxa, decided to go smoke-free well ahead of the deadline.

Others, like the Third Street Diner and the Beatles-themed Penny Lane Pub two blocks away in downtown Richmond, will move their puffing patrons into upstairs quarters that already comply with the law.

To Maher Elmasri, the change is an unfair threat to his authentic hookah restaurant in Vienna. He’s spending thousands of dollars on architects, engineers, builders and ventilation contractors to keep the hookah — a tall, ornate water pipe popular in Arabic cultures — in use at his Middle Eastern restaurant, Lebnan Zaman.

“Am I confident I can stay in business? I don’t know that I am confident. I just know that I have to do this to survive,” said Elmasri, a Palestinian immigrant.

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have laws that ban restaurant smoking, according to the American Lung Association. Some of them exempt hookah lounges. But by the time Elmasri learned that Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and legislative Republican leaders were rushing their compromise bill toward passage, it was too late. North Carolina provides no hookah exemption, either.

“It’s like the government going into the Cheesecake Factory and saying, `You can’t serve cheesecake any more,'” Elmasri said.

For the restaurant industry, Lisk argued that allowing separate smoking rooms put small, family-owned places at a disadvantage to large franchise chains. A total ban would be more fair, he said, and many anti-smoking activists agreed.

Now, as the effective date of Virginia’s law approaches, most restaurateurs are relieved it’s here, Lisk said.

“Some of them wanted to ban (smoking) all along, but didn’t for competitive reasons,” he said. Now, Lisk added, they can prohibit smoking altogether knowing that very few competitors will spend the money necessary to offer a smoking area.

“I am counting on that so much,” said Plaxa, who made J.M. Randalls smoke-free on Father’s Day.

He lost the hard-drinking, hard-partying, smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em crowd and saw sales fall nearly $250,000 as liquor and beer orders dropped by nearly half. But food orders are up 44 percent, and wine sales have increased eightfold, Plaxa said.

While he hasn’t fully recouped the money the late-night party animals spent, costs have gone down. Smoke took a toll on his equipment and maintenance budget, it yellowed the walls and drapes, cigarettes burned holes in tabletops and upholstery, and ashes left carpets in ruins, he said. He also sees steady growth in a higher class of customer that may ultimately be even more profitable for his business.

“The more responsible person is a person who doesn’t smoke. These people take care of themselves. They’re in bed by 10 or 10:30 at night and they’re up before sunrise next morning to work out,” he said.

A few restaurants can retain smokers under the new law without making any structural changes. Two — Penny Lane and Third Street Diner — have long had separately ventilated rooms upstairs. Penny Lane has an open-air patio, which can also accommodate smokers under the new law.

“From a business standpoint, we are lucky,” said Lisa O’Neill, Penny Lane’s manager and daughter-in-law of its owner, Terry O’Neill.

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