Smoking bills advance in Senate

smokybarSmoking is a hot topic in this year’s General Assembly.

Several bills were introduced in the Senate that either ban or regulate smoking in Virginia. The Senate Education and Health Committee voted last week to allow five of those bills to move forward and appear before the full Senate.

The bills considered by the committee ranged from simply allowing localities to use stricter standards than those established by the Virginia Indoor Clean Air Act to banning smoking in restaurants or public places across the state. The committee, chaired by Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania) voted to advance all of the bills by a vote of 11-3.

Several people came forward to speak for and against the bills during last Wednesday’s subcommittee meeting and public hearing. Samuel Bartle, a pediatrician, spoke on behalf of the Medical Society of Virginia. He said secondhand smoke is particularly dangerous for children, increasing risks for various infections.

“The only thing that some colleagues of mine would call a plus about secondhand smoke was that it’s job security for physicians,” Bartle said.

Speakers were also concerned about the health of people working in smoke-filled restaurants and clubs, because they inhale secondhand smoke for several hours each week.

“No one should have to risk their health to earn a paycheck,” said Cathleen Grzesiek, director of government relations for the Virginia Chapter of the American Heart Association.

Others said the legislation is unnecessary and would hurt businesses, especially in a tough economy.

“This is not a social issue,” said Megan Svajda, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.

“If this happens now, then what happens next?” she asked. “What is the next step in mandating things for businesses?”

A representative from the Virginia Retail Merchants Association said that there were already plenty of smoke-free establishments in the commonwealth and that 68 percent of Virginia’s restaurants are smoke-free.

The most comprehensive of the legislation considered was Senate Bill 1057, also known as the Virginia Smoke Free Air Act, sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington).

The Virginia Smoke Free Air Act would restrict smoking “in any indoor enclosed area to which the general public is invited or in which the general public is permitted.”

It would not apply in private homes, private vehicles, home-based businesses or a few other areas such as specially designated hotel rooms.

The other bills the committee considered were: Senate Bill 870, sponsored by Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), which would allow localities to exceed current indoor air quality regulations; Senate Bill 1002, sponsored by Sen. Frederick M. Quayle (R-Suffolk), which would allow localities to impose stricter air quality standards in restaurants; and Senate Bill 1105, sponsored by Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), which would prohibit smoking in all indoor and bar and lounge areas in the state, require the posting of “No Smoking” signs and impose a $25 fine for violations.

Senate Bill 1160, sponsored by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield), was identical to Northam’s bill, and the two were combined in a special smoking subcommittee on Wednesday.

Several more bills pertaining to smoking are awaiting action in committee in the House of Delegates.

Nicholas Langhorne is a VCU journalism student and contributed this story through the Capital News Service.

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