2009-11-25 / Front Page

No smoking

Restaurants to go smoke-free next week
By Jim McConnell

For the majority of local restaurants, Dec. 1, 2009, will feel just like any other weekday: Customers will come and go, food will be cooked and served and the staff will run itself ragged trying to keep everyone happy.

Dec. 1 won’t be just another day, though. In a commonwealth whose economy has valued tobacco since its earliest origins and which remains home to the world’s largest cigarette factory, it will mark a moment in history many native Virginians never thought they’d live to see.

Virginia’s new ban on smoking in restaurants, which was signed into law earlier this year by Gov. Tim Kaine, officially takes effect next Tuesday.

“This is going to have a positive impact on everyone: people who work at restaurants and people who eat there. In most cases, I think people are going to respond positively,” said Gary Hagy, director of the Division of Food and Environmental Services for the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

If statistics provided by VDH are accurate, it will be business as usual for 73 percent of the commonwealth’s fast-food and full-service restaurants that already are completely smoke-free. For the others, owners and managers must decide how much time and money they’re willing to spend to comply with the new regulations while continuing to offer patrons the op- portunity to smoke on premises.

Christine Johnson, general manager of Milepost 5 in Midlothian, is in discussions with a state health inspector to determine if putting up a door between the restaurant’s smoking and non-smoking sections will be enough to keep the facility in compliance. Milepost 5 already has separate rooms and separate ventilation systems for smoking and non-smoking areas, which would appear to satisfy two of the exceptions specified in the smoking ban.

“I think it would help us because we’d be one of the only restaurants that has smoking,” Johnson added.

A statewide survey of 3,725 restaurant patrons conducted by teenage members of Y Street, a volunteer high school action group sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth (VFHY), suggests otherwise:

• Eighty-two percent of respondents, including a majority of smokers, think that smoking should not be allowed at all in Virginia restaurants.

• Five out of six survey participants said they would visit restaurants more frequently if those restaurants were completely smokefree.

• Ninety-one percent of survey respondents who said they dine out five to 12 times a month said they would dine out more frequently or about the same amount if restaurants were smoke-free.

Tillary Buffa, co-owner of Riptides Seafood Restaurant in Chesterfield, said similar anecdotal evidence prompted her and her husband to designate all indoor areas of their facility as smoke-free back in February 2007.

“We just had a lot more people who wanted to sit in non-smoking than in smoking,” she added. “Our business has grown. We’ve had a few customers who came in and were disappointed, but mostly everyone has been happy about it.”

That’s the way the system is supposed to work, said Chesterfield Del. Sam Nixon, who made what he called “a principled vote” against the bill in the General Assembly because it takes decision-making power out of the hands of local business owners and transfers it to state government.

“The marketplace handled the situation beautifully until we decided to step in. As consumers, we all have free will. We can walk into a restaurant and walk right back out if we choose,” Nixon said. “Unfortunately government is now right in the middle of it, with all these byzantine standards adding expense to small business owners in the middle of a recession.”

The new law, which applies to all public restaurants regardless of size or capacity, permits smoking in outdoor areas, provided the area is not enclosed by any screened wall, roll-up doors or other temporary enclosures. If the outdoor area is enclosed, smoking still may be permissible if the area is structurally separate from the non-smoking area and is vented to prevent recirculation of air.

Private clubs, defined as organizations that are used exclusively for club purposes or events; are operated solely for recreational, fraternal, social, patriotic, political, benevolent, or athletic purposes; have established bylaws, a constitution, or both that govern its activities; and conduct organizational matters and management by a board of directors, executive committee, or similar body chosen by the members at an annual meeting, are exempt from the smoking ban.

That’s not the case for bowling alleys, skating rinks, bingo halls and other facilities that prepare and serve food. Their options are: go smoke-free throughout the entire facility, cease preparation and service of food or comply with the law by modifying the structure so the smoking area is structurally separate from the non-smoking areas and vent the smoking area to prevent recirculation of air into the non-smoking area.

VDH personnel will assist in enforcing the law by ensuring during regular inspections that facilities have conspicuously posted “No Smoking” signs and removed all ashtrays and other smoking paraphernalia from nonsmoking areas. They will also assess whether separate smoking areas comply with the new requirements.

The civil penalty for failing to obey the smoking ban is a $25 fine. While VDH employees are not authorized to issue summons, they will refer evidence of violations to local law enforcement agencies.

“It’s great to see that something you did could help change people’s lives,” said Christine Hou, a Chesterfield resident and senior at Maggie Walker Governor’s School who was one of more than 160 high school students to work on the Y Street survey. “We could’ve been doing other things, but it was more rewarding to do this.”

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