Smoke clears, as law goes into effect in Virginia restaurants

The state’s ban on smoking in Virginia restaurants took effect yesterday. With some exceptions, most smokers now have to drag tobacco ban in restaurantsthemselves out of Virginia’s public dining rooms and bars to light up.

The ban passed the General Assembly and was signed into law this year by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, marking a significant step in the history of the commonwealth, which has profited handsomely from the cash crop of tobacco for nearly 400 years.

The new law exempts private clubs and requires restaurants that want to welcome smokers to maintain a separately ventilated enclosed room, or relegate them to unenclosed outdoor patio areas. Violations of the law are punishable by a $25 fine per occurrence on both the proprietor and smoker.

Across the Richmond region yesterday, smokers had their first dining-out meals without nicotine, while anxious owners tried to assess the potential impact on their businesses.

The Sports Page bar and restaurant in Midlothian broke the news with a large yellow banner outside the entrance.

“It’s the law, brother,” said proprietor Ron Newcome, who estimated that 50 percent of his patrons had enjoyed a smoke with their draft beer.

Creating a separately ventilated section would have been too costly for the business, so the night before the ban took effect, Newcome held a ceremonial smashing of a couple of ashtrays and even gave a few away to wistful patrons.

“Overall I like the law,” said Newcome, a nonsmoker. “I just don’t like the law enough to lose all that business.”

State officials say the law will protect patrons and restaurant workers from health risks posed by secondhand smoke.

Kaine toured the state yesterday to promote the law. He stopped in Charlottesville, Alexandria and finally Richmond, where he spoke at the Home Team Grill on Main Street in the Fan District, a restaurant that went smoke-free yesterday.

Kaine said the law would be good for patrons and especially for restaurant workers who, according to health statistics, are twice as likely to develop lung cancer as people who do not work in smoking environments.

“We have saved lives — about 1,700 people a year die of the effects of secondhand smoke,” Kaine told the crowd at the restaurant.

Home Team Grill owner Garland Taylor said business increased when his other restaurant in western Henrico County went nonsmoking 18 months ago.

Kaine said he was not concerned that a subsequent legislative session would repeal the law. If anything, he believes it would be made more strict.

Still the incoming governor does not approve of the law the current governor helped enact.

“The governor-elect does believe this is a matter best left to the free market, and he did not support this measure as it was debated in the General Assembly,” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell.

Most Virginia restaurants already are smoke-free by choice, Martin said. “However, the legislation passed, and the new law is now in effect. As governor, he will uphold and enforce all Virginia laws.”

But some things, especially in tobacco-rich Richmond, will not change. The Tobacco Company, not surprisingly, still has a smoking section in the downstairs bar area and garden atrium, while the secondand third-floor dining rooms of the sprawling Shockoe Slip establishment are smoke-free.

Rudy Cobian smoked a Marlboro cigarette after lunch yesterday at Bailey’s Smokehouse & Tavern in Henrico. The restaurant and bar has complied with the law by maintaining a spacious smoking area, separated by doors and walls from a nonsmoking area.

“I’ve been here three times, and it is going to be more of a hangout for me,” Cobian said.

Patrons at the smoke-free Sports Page — even the smokers — didn’t seem put out by the new law.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” said smoker Kevin Girts, 51, who came for lunch with his wife, Colleen. “I’ll just step outside.”

Workers also were pleased about their new environment.

“No more extra washing of our clothes,” said Shelby Hamby, 39, the bartender yesterday at the Milepost 5 seafood restaurant, which had a large smoking crowd at the bar before yesterday.

Hamby, who quit the habit two years ago, said that even if her tips fall off initially because of the ban, she won’t get the same grief from her children when she comes home from work.

“They’d say, ‘Mom, you smell like shrimp and cigarettes.'”

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