A Tobacco State Weighs a Smoking Ban

Virginia's governor pushes for a ban in the shadow of Philip Morris.

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A loose-leaf-tobacco market in Virginia, shown in a 1913 postcard, was once the largest in the world.

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In a southern city that owes its bloom to tobacco fields, mounting evidence of the health risks of secondhand smoke is proving an unwelcome carpetbagger.

For the second year running, Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine has proposed banning smoking in all eating establishments in Virginia. Here, where even the taverns are required to serve food, a ban would be widely felt. It would also be a blow to one of the state's top employers and corporate citizens, Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro and the nation's leading cigarette manufacturer. Reflective of changing times—even Paris has gone smoke free—polls show that Virginians back such a ban.

Colonists. Yet in a state that has twice been saved by the leafy crop, a smoking ban could also be seen as downright treachery. As a colony, Virginia was on the verge of failing when settler John Rolfe introduced a tobacco variety that became the toast of Europe. By the Revolution, Virginia led the colonies in wealth and political influence. Virginia's power waned after the ravages of the Civil War and as the demanding crop depleted the soil. Advancements like crop rotation resurrected tobacco, and tobacco resurrected Virginia. By the mid-20th century, the cigarette industry employed 1 in 15 Richmond workers, with the city producing a third of the national supply. Among the thousands of former Richmond brands: Old Goat, They're After Me, and, presciently, Bad Habit.

But then came the landmark surgeon general's report in 1964 that declared tobacco a health hazard. And tobacco, says Charles Bryan, president of the Virginia Historical Society, "became a tainted industry in the mind of the public." Since 1965, smoking among American adults has declined from 43 percent to an estimated 20 percent, and cigarette sales over the past decade have declined about 2 percent per year. Those are worrisome numbers for Philip Morris and its 5,800 employees who live and work in Virginia.

The company, which has seen 28 states enact similar smoking bans, is working to develop more smokeless (chewing) products, such as Marlboro MST. And it successfully opposed the ban last year when it surfaced in its own backyard. Philip Morris has not yet joined the current fight, but spokesman Bill Phelps argues that restaurants should have the option to go smoke free. That's the position of Virginia's restaurant and hospitality lobby, which is fighting the proposal. Indeed, thousands of Virginia restaurants have already made the switch; even patrons at the iconic Tobacco Company Restaurant in downtown Richmond can't smoke, except in the bar and some private rooms.

Arguing for his bill, Kaine cites concern for workers in hazy environs. The Virginia Department of Health estimates that secondhand smoke is responsible for 1,700 deaths in the state per year. Barrett Hardiman, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, says workers have plenty of employment options, but critics argue that many workers can't leave their jobs and, in any case, all are entitled to a safe environment.

While no one argues about the health risks, the specter of government intervention resonates in this traditionally conservative state. Although the state Senate is expected to support the bill, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates is rockier ground. Delegate Tom Gear, who chairs the subcommittee that will first vote on the ban, calls its prospects bleak. "If a restaurant wants to be nonsmoking, it can do it," Gear says. "What's right is to let owners run their business." Even Kaine says his efforts might fall short. Says Bryan: "If there is one distinguishing characteristic of Virginia, it's resistance to change." But in Virginia today, that resistance seems to be burning out.