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Deciding on Smoke-Free Dining

Alexandria has more than 400 restaurants throughout the city; 60 have signed up for the new "Proud To Be Smoke-Free" voluntary program initiated by the Alexandria Health Department.

But what about all the others? Why have some decided to adopt the program? And, what are some of the reasons others have chosen to remain dual establishments — offering their customers a choice?

Although the Health Department kicked off their campaign in mid-July, the real initiative was an outgrowth of the 2004 Alexandria Community Health Assessment and City Council's recent strategic planning process. "Council identified enhancing public health and safeguarding the environment as priorities," according to a March memorandum jointly issued by Councilpersons Ludwig P. Gaines and Joyce Woodson.

In that memorandum to the mayor and other members of Council, calling for the initiation of a voluntary smoke-free restaurant program, Gains and Woodson stated, the health assessment "ranks reducing tobacco use and its adverse consequences second among its priority list of recommended action items. Encouraging a smoke-free public environment through a voluntary smoke free restaurant program clearly fits within our vision for Alexandria ..."

They further emphasized, "This request has as its specific purpose safeguarding the health and well being of ... residents and visitors, as well as bar and restaurant employees by reducing and eliminating nonsmoker exposure to ... second hand smoke." They also noted that "evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" links "coronary heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and other detrimental health impacts" to exposure to secondary smoke.

They suggested a voluntary program because "Alexandria does not have the authority to restrict smoking in restaurants." The reason for that limitation can be found in what is known as "The Dillon Rule" in Virginia. That rule limits what local jurisdictions can legislate without approval of the state's General Assembly. Those items differ by class of local government.

"Because of the Dillon Rule we have sought a creative way to offer smoke-free restaurants," Gaines said. "The principal concern I had in submitting this memo was protecting the people who live and work in the city as well as those that visit our city."

That was buttressed by Woodson. "I have lost three members of my family as a result of smoking. I'd love to have a totally smoke free environment, but we can't legislate that locally in Virginia," she said.

"Clearly, there is a national movement to associate different life styles with health attitudes. And, having a smoke-free environment is a major plus," Woodson said.

"From my perspective, the Health Assessment is the primary driving force. And, if the restaurants are willing to volunteer to do this we are delighted," she said.

BOTH GAINES AND Woodson, as well as the Health Department, are hoping that the list of participating establishments will continue to grow. But, of the 60 restaurants now signed on most did not do so because of the campaign. And many not on the list offer practical reasons for not becoming 100 percent smoke-free.

In calling those listed as "Proud To Be Smoke-Free," the majority sampled stated they were smoke-free from the time they went into business. It was no change to become part of the program.

"We have been smoke-free from the beginning. We feel that smoking interferes with fine dining and we are about the food. Smoke and fine food don't mix. We weren't looking to make a political statement," said Cathal Armstrong, owner, Restaurant Eve, 110 S. Pitt St.

"We don't have a separate dining room for smokers and lots of people complain about eating in an area where people are smoking. That's why we have been non-smoking from the beginning at our present location," said Rukhsana Shfi, manager, Pines of Florence, 1300 King St.

"I joined up because we don't like smoking and our customers don't like it. We had our non-smoking policy long before this program, " said Susan Scheffler, owner, along with her husband of Nickell's & Scheffler, 1028 King St.

"It's very important not to have smoking where food is being served. It's all about the food. And, smoking detracts from that," she said.

For Rick Newton, manager, Majestic Cafe, 911 King St., there was "a two-pronged reason" for opening a smoke-free restaurant. "The Magestic is not designed for smoking and eating. It is not large enough. And, the food is more important than the bar sales," he said.

"The second reason is that we have found that more people are interested in a non-smoking restaurant. This seems to be the trend," he said.

Although, IL Porto, 121 King St., is one of the 60 participants, it is not 100 percent smoke free, according to Manfredy Lopez, manager. "Our bar on the second floor is smoking. But, the restaurant itself, on the first floor, is smoke-free, and has been, for seven years," he said. "We provide dining tables in the bar area as well for those that wish to dine in that atmosphere."

ON THE OTHER SIDE remains the vast majority of Alexandria's dining establishments. They offer non-smoking and smoking areas depending on the customer's preference.

"We have more seating for non-smokers than smokers," said Damion Landini, manager, Landini Brothers Restaurant, 115 King St. "We try to accommodate all our customers so we didn't feel we needed to join the program."

Michael Armellino, owner, Bilbo Baggins Cafe-Restaurant, 208 Queen St., believes "Every establishment is entirely different" and should approach the option based on their customer base and how they are designed.

"Our heating and air conditioning system has entirely different units for the bar area and the restaurant. So we can have the best of both worlds for our customers and that's what counts," he said.

"We are more of a restaurant than a bar and therefore, if smoke-free restaurants ever becomes actual law we wouldn't be hurt. However we are more casual dining and many of our bar patrons like to smoke. But, the entire restaurant is smoke-free until 10 p.m. and we have more permanent smoke-free areas than smoking," said Peter Durkin, general manager, Chadwicks, 203 S. Strand St.

More adamant about not becoming totally smoke-free is Kathleen Molloy, general manager, Pat Troy's Restaurant & Pub, 111 N. Pitt St. "We have a large number of customers that smoke and they would not be happy if we went totally smoke-free. One half the restaurant is now non-smoking. Our large dining room is non-smoking and it is significantly separated from the bar area," she said.

IS THERE A GROWING change in attitude? Steve Kornett, general manager, Portner's Restaurant, 109 S. St. Asaph St., thinks so.

"Eventually it's going to happen like in California and other places. Restaurants will be smoke-free. For our customers that enjoy smoking we have a separate room. It is only one of our six dining rooms," he said.

For restaurants located in a hotel property the quandary is somewhat deeper. They are trying to accommodate not only dining patrons but also guests who wish to eat at the hotel as well.

Peter Greenberg, owner, Morrison House, 116 S. Alfred St., decided to significantly increase the hotel's smoke-free dining times. "I've come to the conclusion we need to move to non-smoking. Even many smokers don't like to eat in a smoking atmosphere," he said.

"On those nights we only have one dining room open, we are going to put our toe in the water and make it non-smoking. That will mean that three nights a week we'll offer non-smoking dining. On the other four nights we always offer the choice," Greenberg said.

He based his decision on the comment cards completed by hotel guests who have eaten in the dining and grill rooms. "We have gotten far more comment cards stating that they really enjoyed their meal but would have enjoyed it even more if it had been non-smoking. I haven't seen any that said "Thanks for letting me smoke," he said.