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The Great Smokeout

Unusual plan hopes uses zoning authority to force bars and restaurants into becoming smoke free.

In a small side room at Misha’s Coffeehouse on South Patrick Street, cigarette smoke wafts into the air as the aroma of roasting coffee beans competes for superiority. Light is refracted into all directions as smoker after smoker lights up in the coffeehouse’s designated smoking area. A large wooden table dominates the room, and a constantly changing cast of characters gab about all manner of things as they flick ashes into oversized glass ash trays. The hot topic of conversation around the table of late has been the city’s proposed smoking ban — an unusual plan to use the city’s Zoning Ordinance in an effort to force bars and restaurants to adopt a no-smoking policy or face the wrath of City Hall.

“I think it’s immoral and unjust,” said Spencer Tacktill, sucking on a Marlboro Light. “The government shouldn’t impose its personal taste on businesses.”

Tacktill said he’s been smoking since he was 14 years old. And although he plans to quit within the next year, he said he’s more concerned about the precedent his hometown will be setting. As a native Alexandrian, Tacktill said that he disagrees with the City Council using its zoning authority as a blunt instrument to force business owners to adopt a no-smoking polity or face the consequences of not being allowed to upgrade a kitchen or increase seating.

“If the City Council decides to go through with this, I think Alexandria will lose a lot of business to Arlington where people can smoke in peace,” he said. “People can do more damage to themselves by driving behind a DASH bus in June than sitting in a coffeehouse with a few smokers.”

SMOKERS FIND THEMSELVES caught on the wrong end of seemingly inevitable social forces. The United States Department of Health and Human Services says smoking is the leading cause of preventable death, with secondhand smoke causing more than 3,000 lung-cancer deaths a year. Smoking bans in Florida, New York, Maryland and the District of Columbia have expelled smoking to outdoor areas, shunned from public life and increasingly marginalized from society.

Even in Virginia, which was once world famous for its varieties of tobacco, the trend has been gaining ground for some time. Earlier this year, City Lobbyist Bernard Caton told City Council members that an effort to ban smoking in bars and restaurants was gaining traction in Richmond.

“Support to significantly limit smoking in public is growing in the General Assembly, and the number of bills related to this issue continues to increase,” he told City Council members in a January briefing. “Our strategy is to support the prohibition bills but oppose any bill that would allow smoking to continue if signs indicating this are posted.”

But the city’s lobbying strategy was unsuccessful, and the prohibition efforts were defeated in a capital city where tobacco leaves can be found as a decorative element in murals and statues. Undeterred by the will of the General Assembly, city leaders were eager to find a creative way of striking new ground. Mayor Bill Euille led the charge, asking City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa to find a way to force businesses to become smoke-free. Pessoa responded in a Feb. 13 letter, outlining an unusual proposal that would require a “text amendment” to the city’s Zoning Ordinance.

“The rationale for the proposed regulations is that restaurants which receive a zoning permit or some other benefit from the city must, as a condition of receiving or retaining that permit or benefit, agree to operate as a smoke-free establishment,” Pessoa wrote in the letter. “Existing restaurants which do not agree may continue to operate, but will be severely restricted and, in some cases, effectively precluded from making any significant changes or improvements to the restaurant, and may be required to cease existing operations after seven years.”

Under the language of the proposed amendment, all new restaurants must institute a no-smoking policy to get a permit allowing them to open. Restaurants with an existing permit must agree to become smoke-free within three months of the approval of the ordinance. “Grandfathered” restaurants, which pre-date the permit process, must agree to become smoke free or risk losing their favored “grandfather” status — an event that would necessitate a new permit and a forced no-smoking policy. Any bar or restaurant that does not agree to become nonsmoking would become a “nonconforming use,” a category that would place severe limitations on what kind of upgrades they can make.

“I feel like this is a move in the right direction,” Euille said after Pessoa presented his plan at the Feb. 15 City Council meeting. “We were first with red-light cameras and first with the living wage. Why not be first with this?”

AROUND THE TABLE at Misha’s, the plan to use the city’s zoning authority as a blunt weapon has received mixed reviews. Angela Powers, lighting up a Parliament in the smoking room in the Old Town coffeehouse, said that one of the main reasons she comes to Misha’s is to smoke cigarettes. She avoids smoking in her house and her car, she said, to escape the lingering odor of cigarette smoke. But Misha’s is a different story. The smoking room is a way to indulge her habit and be social at the same time. Yet it’s not worth launching a campaign to preserve.

“I’m not gong to take a stand for smoking,” said Powers. “If the City Council wants to use it’s zoning authority to ban smoking, more power to them.”

On the other side of the table, Sheila Pollak disagreed. Smoking a Marlboro Red, Pollak said that she has spoken with many of Misha’s smokers in the past few weeks about the topic — most of whom she described as against the plan. She added that participants in her informal poll wanted to know when the city was going to the Zoning Ordinance to combat other vices such as driving fast cars or drinking Scotch.

“I understand that people don’t want to be around smokers,” said Pollak. “ But I can’t imagine going to a bar and not being able to smoke.”