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County Struggles to Ignite Smoking Ban

hough Arlington is interested in prohibiting smoking in bars and restaurants, the General Assembly is unlikely to grant permission.

Although the D.C. Council voted last week to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, Arlington residents will be able to enjoy a cigarette with their meals and drinks for the foreseeable future.

If the measure becomes law, Washington will be the third major locality in the region, after Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, to enact smoking prohibitions in indoor public places. Virginia, though, does not grant the power to its localities to enact similar bans.

Because of the Dillon Rule, which stipulates that localities have no powers except what the Virginia legislature explicitly grants them, the General Assembly would have to pass new legislation in order for jurisdictions to prevent customers from lighting up inside. And that is unlikely to happen any time soon, county officials and state lawmakers said.

“It’s something I’d like to look into, but the climate for putting forward increased smoking restrictions in Richmond is very unfavorable,” said Del. Bob Brink (D-48) “Maybe down the road we can pursue it.”

Last year a bill was introduced in the state Senate by William Mims (R-33), where it failed by a vote of 26 to 14, but no smoking legislation was brought before the House of Delegates.

The county government pushed hard for the legislation last year, but did not initially include it in its 2006 legislative package because of the poor reception it received in Richmond. Board members said it is still a measure they would be in favor of.

“If a bill was out there to restrict smoking we would actively support it,” said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “We still have the same interest and intent but it continues to be unsuccessful.”

During last week’s county board meeting, board member Paul Ferguson suggested that an Arlington legislator should introduce a bill that would allow the county to ban smoking in restaurants and bars for a two-year trial basis.

Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47) said any such measure would likely fail because of the strong sway of the tobacco lobby.

“Virginia has had a love affair with tobacco ever since John Smith rolled up a tobacco leaf, put it in his mouth and set it on fire,” Eisenberg said.

ADVOCATES OF A BAN in Arlington say it would improve the health of both patrons and employees and reflects the “progressive values” of the county.

“It’s a tragedy that we can’t get legislation to save the lives and health of Arlington residents, particularly employees who are exposed hour after hour to the dangers of second-hand smoke,” Eisenberg said.

A smoking ban in restaurants and bars has a large groundswell of support in the county, proponents said.

The Carlyle Grand Cafe outlawed smoking more than a decade ago to create a more family-friendly ambiance.

“Our guests appreciate it,” said Dwight Fuller, one of the establishment’s managing partners. “They have only wonderful things to say. We’re very happy with the decision.”

At Bailey’s Pub and Grille in Ballston, where approximately one-quarter of the customers were smoking on a recent weeknight, many customers said they were indifferent about a ban.

“I like to smoke a cigar at bars, but it wouldn’t bother me if they ban it,” said George Blackey, waving his cigar as smoke wafted up into the air.

It was a sentiment shared by most others drinking in the bar.

“It’s a health issue and this is the way society is headed,” said Joe Gonzalez, also indulging in an after-work cigar. “People can always go smoke outside.”

Those who oppose a measure similar to the one just passed in Washington say it will hurt businesses financially and send customers to neighboring localities where people can still smoke inside.

“People want to smoke when they drink,” said Rob Peterson, a bartender at Bailey’s. “If they can’t smoke here they will drive to Alexandria.”

It’s the bartenders and waitresses who will be most aversively affected by a ban — the very people advocates are trying to help, opponents of a prohibition said. Sean Wetjen, a bartender in Montgomery County, estimates that his tips dropped by 30 to 40 percent after Montgomery County ended smoking in its bars.

There are additional concerns that pushing patrons out onto the streets will cause problems with residents because of noise level and rowdiness.

But not everyone is buying the argument that smokers will cease patronizing bars in Arlington if they become smoke-free.

“People are still going to come and drink no matter what,” said Mario Blackey, smoke rising from his cigar. “Will smokers be irritated? Yes. Will it detract from business? No.”