The outdoor patio or sidewalk increasingly has become the most puff-friendly place for smokers in the year since Virginia began enforcing a stricter indoor-smoking law for restaurants and bars.
That has been the situation for much longer at Big Al’s Sports Bar & Grill in western Henrico County, where Mike Brenneke sat Monday night with a pack of cigarettes on the bar in front of him. When the time came for a smoke, he went outdoors.
“It’s a major inconvenience,” said Brenneke, a commercial painter from Indianapolis who said he has traveled around the country for his job and has seen indoor-smoking laws tightened in many states.
In Virginia, state lawmakers last year broke their traditional resistance to tougher public-smoking rules by passing a law that prohibits smoking in restaurants with few exceptions.
Since the law took effect a year ago today, about 93 percent of eateries in the state have gone smoke-free indoors. The rest offer smoking areas that are enclosed and vented separately.
About 66 percent of restaurants were smoke-free before the law was passed, said Gary Hagy, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s division of food and environmental services.
The Health Department says 98 percent of restaurants inspected since the law took effect are compliant.
“I think it indicates that the industry and the public for the most part have embraced the new law,” Hagy said.
Violators face $25 civil penalties. Hagy said he knows of no citations other than the 13 that police issued at restaurants in the Falls Church area of Northern Virginia in August.
The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had warned restaurant owners this year that their liquor licenses would be jeopardized if they repeatedly violated the smoking law. The agency has not taken action against any restaurants, a spokesman said.
Health groups aren’t happy that the restaurant law permits smoking in eateries if they have smoking areas that are enclosed and vented separately from nonsmoking areas.
Some restaurants have gone that route, including Bailey’s Smokehouse & Tavern in Henrico and The Republic in Richmond, according to SmokeFreelyVa.com.
The site now lists about 270 restaurants statewide that permit smoking, said Moe Marchetti, a Powhatan County resident who opposed the smoking ban and started the site to promote smoker-friendly places.
Having more than 90 percent of the state’s restaurants smoke-free is good, but public-health groups still would prefer a 100 percent smoke-free-workplaces law in Virginia, said Cathleen Smith Grzesiek, senior director of government relations for the American Heart Association’s mid-Atlantic affiliate.
There are no plans to introduce such legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session, though bills may be introduced that would extend smoking bans on state and local government properties, she said.
The state’s cigarette-tax revenue is down about 5.41 percent so far this year compared with the same period of 2009, according to Virginia Department of Taxation figures.
A spokeswoman for the agency said cigarette sales have been declining for several years, and there is no way to pinpoint how much of this year’s decline, if any, could be attributed to the restaurant smoking ban.
A spokesman for cigarette-maker Philip Morris USA’s parent company, Altria Group Inc., said yesterday that the Henrico-based company still believes some provisions of the law went too far and that restaurant owners should decide whether to allow smoking.
The Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association has not collected any data on whether restaurant sales have been affected by the smoking restrictions, but the trade group has worked with its membership to encourage compliance, a spokeswoman said.
Business hasn’t been affected at the two Home Team Grill restaurants in the Richmond area, said Garland Taylor, founder and managing partner of the restaurants.
Taylor said he lost some smoking customers when the location in western Henrico went smoke-free the year before the state law took effect. But once word got out that it was a nonsmoking establishment, new customers came, he said.
The location in the Fan District went smoke-free, except for the outdoor patio, the day before the law took effect. Taylor said sales are about the same this year as last year.
“For the most part, I think people who choose to smoke just go outside and have accepted that as the way it is,” he said.
When Al Coleman opened Big Al’s Sports Bar & Grill with a partner in 2007, they decided to go smoke-free indoors because they wanted to offer an alternative for nonsmoking customers, Coleman said. And they figured the law would change eventually anyway.
“It helped my business,” Coleman said about having a smoke-free restaurant two years before law took effect. “People would come in and say: ‘Thanks for being nonsmoking. I can bring my kids here.'”
In an odd twist, Coleman said the no-smoking law actually hurt his business for a while. “It fell off when the law went into effect for every restaurant, because then people could go other places and enjoy the nonsmoking,” he said.
Brenneke, the smoker who was at Big Al’s on Monday night, said he smokes less when he can’t light up inside. But he called the law unfair.
“If I am in a restaurant eating, then fine — I don’t want to be smoking while I am eating,” he said. “But if you’re out having a beer, then smoking and beer go together. It’s a social thing.”
But for Big Al’s bartender Brian Kennon, who has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years, the smoke-free environment is welcome.
“If I wanted to, I could put these clothes on tomorrow and not worry about smelling like smoke,” he said.
By JOHN REID BLACKWELL