Weakened smoking law is worthless

Published 9:34 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Virginia House of Delegates once again has put the interests of the tobacco industry ahead of Virginians’ health by approving weak, loophole-filled smoke-free restaurant legislation that fails to protect workers and the public from the proven dangers of secondhand smoke.

We urge the Senate to reject this bill – and Governor Kaine to veto it, if it reaches his desk – and instead enact a real, comprehensive smoke-free law that protects every Virginian’s right to breathe clean, smoke-free air.

If the House-passed legislation is enacted into law, Virginia will join the ranks of the 24 states (and Washington, D.C.) that have enacted strong smoke-free laws covering restaurants and bars. Instead, Virginia will become an example of what not to do – and will earn the distinction of having one of the worst statewide smoke-free laws in the nation.

Email newsletter signup

Far from representing a break with Virginia’s long history of being beholden to the tobacco industry, the House-passed legislation represents a continuation of that history that has cost the state so much in lives, health and health care dollars lost to tobacco use.

The amendments approved by the House yesterday made an already bad bill even worse. As originally introduced, the legislation already included significant loopholes designed to appease the interests of Big Tobacco, including exemptions for private clubs, smoking rooms in restaurants and weak enforcement provisions.

The revised bill further weakens the legislation by eliminating the requirement that smoking rooms be separately ventilated, permitting smoking in rooms separated only by doors, exempting restaurants hosting private functions and permitting smoking at any establishment where under-age patrons are not admitted.

The U.S. Surgeon General has found that there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and that the only way to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke is to require smoke-free workplaces and public places. Other approaches, such as air ventilation systems and smoking and non-smoking sections, do not eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.

This legislation does not protect the health of Virginians and goes against the wishes of a large majority of Virginians who don’t want to risk their health in order to earn a paycheck or enjoy a night out in a restaurant. In a January 2009 poll, 75 percent of Virginia voters said they support a statewide law that makes all restaurants completely smoke-free.

While some have touted House passage of this smoke-free restaurant legislation as an historic cultural shift for a traditional tobacco state, it is far from a new day in Virginia. The truth is that this is the latest example of state leaders choosing the interests of the tobacco industry over the interests of their constituents.

In addition to introducing this unacceptable smoke-free legislation, lawmakers so far have refused to increase the state cigarette tax – which would keep thousands of kids from smoking and help pay for critical programs – and are currently considering cutting the state’s tobacco prevention program.