Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bursting at the Seams: Virginia's One-Size-Fits-All Smoking Solution

The Sun Gazette newspaper provides some of the best local news coverage in Northern Virginia, covering stories the Washington Post ignores. However, sometimes its editorials have me doing the Scooby Doo-style "Wha-huh?". Like, say, this one:

THUMBS UP: To Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell, for issuing a ruling last week that correctly notes that Virginia's Dillion Rule status prohibits localities like Alexandria (which has done it) and Arlington (which would like to) from using zoning rules to ban smoking in restaurants. [...]

(A)ny move to ban smoking in restaurants based on zoning will result in a quick trip to court and an equally quick defeat for the locality. Take that prediction to the bank.

Alexandria's action in attempting to ban smoking was little more than a publicity stunt. If they were serious, city officials (and others who support smoke-free restaurants) would work to get legislation passed in Richmond.
Problem A: Legislation? Oh, you think so, doctor? We'll look into that. (For details of the two-years-and-counting ongoing battle to get smoke-free air legislation passed, click here.)

Problem B: A publicity stunt? During this year's legislative battle, a Survey USA poll showed a full 65% of Virginians supported a statewide bar and restaurant smoking ban. The number was even higher in Northern Virginia, where 70% of us back smoke-free legislation. Even 20% of smokers support a bar/restaurant ban.

Problem C
: The same Bob McDonnell who accepted contributions totalling
$325,300 from the liquor and tobacco industry during his last campaign? That's who we should trust to issue objective rulings on the regulation of the tobacco industry? Just checking.

How seriously are communities taking McDonnell's ruling? Ummm ... they're kind of ignoring it altogether:

Norfolk officials are ignoring a state attorney general's opinion and moving ahead in their effort to ban smoking in restaurants and bars.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell says in an advisory opinion that a locality cannot impose smoking restrictions that are more stringent than those imposed by the state.

But Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko says the city is not relying on the Virginia Clean Indoor Air Act. Instead, it's relying on the city charter, which Pishko says permits smoking restrictions in two sections. One is through police powers ensuring the health and safety of citizens. The other is a provision giving the city power to order reductions in smoke and dust.

Pishko says that latter provision may have been originally directed at smoke related to coal ... but it doesn't expressly state a specific kind of smoke.
Shouldn't Norfolk live in constant fear of a lawsuit, as the Sun Gazette suggests? Not according to the Virginian-Pilot:

If it enacts a ban, Norfolk might face a lawsuit challenging its authority. But that's no reason for timidity. Given the haze enveloping the issue, a fight in court would bring welcome clarity, and perhaps even a popular and precedent-setting victory.

Either way - lawsuit or not - Norfolk benefits from trying to clear the air.
The bottom line? Legislators had their chance to respond to the will of the people (remember that 65% figure), but refused to ban smoking in bars and restaurants statewide or even to give communities the option to make their own decision. To see 2007's roll call vote on the smoking ban, click here.

Now you have Alexandria and Norfolk in open rebellion. It's all especially bizarre because the local governments are being thwarted by the General Assembly's conservatives, who usually argue for local control. In the Republican party's battle of values versus Big Tobacco money, it's obvious what's winning out.

Will the General Assembly correct its mistake? We'll find out in 2008.
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