RICHMOND — Anti-smoking lobby groups released a survey Wednesday stating that three-fourths of Virginia voters favor a broad ban on smoking.
The report comes as four major anti-smoking bills pass in the Senate Education and Health Committee. Proponents of a ban say the danger of secondhand smoke no longer can be ignored.
We are way beyond the years when we could say if you want to smoke yourself its OK because you arent affecting other people, said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington.
Senate Bill 298 would make lighting up in a public place illegal. Some exceptions include smoking in home offices, cars and private clubs.
The ban has a broad reach that would please many, the survey reports, and upset others.
Although 96 percent of Virginian voters surveyed stated secondhand smoke is a health hazard, opponents of the ban say regardless of public opinion the government should not get involved in private business decisions.
It should be up to the owner of the establishment (whether or not to allow smoking), said David Meyer of Milan Tobacconist, a Roanoke tobacco shop.
Meyer receives a lot of business from country clubs, hotels and from people who want to enjoy a cigar at the smoker-friendly restaurant next door to his shop. If the smoking ban passes, Meyer and the entire tobacco industry would lose customers, he said.
The tobacco industry provides a lot of revenues for the state, Meyer said.
The tobacco industry contributed $5.5 million to the General Assembly over the past decade, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, an online database, which tracks campaign contributions.
Some say a ban would be good for business. The survey states that 32 percent of voters would go to restaurants and bars more often if the establishments were smoke free.
Lobbyists for the Virginia restaurants that opposed the ban, said Whipples bill favors private clubs, putting restaurants at an unfair disadvantage. Private clubs include country clubs, moose lodges, etc.
These clubs are typically in competition with restaurants, said Tom Lisk, a lobbyist for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association and the Virginia Retail Merchants Association.
If someone wants to host a private party at an establishment — and they have smokers in the group — they will have no choice but to hold the event in a private club where smoking is allowed, Lisk said.
Lisk and Meyer agreed the government should let the free market decide which restaurants ban smoking.
The market is already moving the restaurans to (going) smoke free, said Barrett Hardiman, director of government relations for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.
Of the reported Virginian restaurants, 75 percent already are smoke-free, said Gary Hagy from the Virginia Department of Health.
Whipple said waiting the predicted five years it would take the market to go smoke-free on its own, is too risky.
Each year in Virginia 1,000 non-smokers die from secondhand smoke, Whipple said.
Sen. John C. Miller, D-Newport News, agreed saying 5,000 deaths cannot be justified for the rights of businesses.
I started this journey believing that government was too involved in our lives (but) I think theres a greater good (in this ban), said Miller, a former smoker.
Miller, along with 11 other members of the committee voted for Whipples bill. Senators Frank Ruff, R-Clarksville, Stephen Newman, R-Forest, and Stephen Martin, R-Chesterfield, voted against it.
The bills will be heard on the Senate floor next week.