How effective is Virginia’s smoking ban?

On Dec. 1, 2009, bars and restaurants across Virginia were ordered to put out their cigarettes or renovate their buildings to accommodate non-smokers. A year and a half later, how effective is the ban?

Under the smoking ban, no establishment that sells food can allow smoking, unless it has a separate smoking area, with a door between the smoking and non-smoking sections, and at least one entrance that opens into the non-smoking area.

Initially, a number of bars refused to comply with the law. Many smokers, like Virginia Commonwealth University junior David Turko, a self described “barfly,” objected to the ban.

“When you’re a smoker, you go to a bar and drink,” Turko said. “They go together like milk and cookies.”

He said a few places, like Bandito’s and Joe’s Inn, still allow smoking. But workers at both bars said they are now in full compliance with the law.

“We have all the required facilities,” said Tina Kaftaris, a bartender at Joe’s Inn. “We have separate smoking facilities with its own heating and cooling, circulation and entry.”

Health officials say that while most restaurants are in compliance, the law is difficult to enforce, because the punishment is just a $25 fine, and police are reluctant to spend their time pursuing such a small amount.

“The way the law was originally written … the most a person could be fined was $25. For the police to respond to a call, send an officer out there, write up somebody and go to court, the cost of that would be far over $25,” said John Shellenberg of the Hampton Health Department.

“I am unaware of any police department in the state that has actively enforced the smoking ordinance.”

But Shellenberg says he has found a new way to enforce the ban: persuading the Alcoholic Beverage Control board to make compliance with the smoking ban a condition of a restaurant’s liquor license.

In one case, Shellenberg said, “The agent wrote up a violation against the owner, against his ABC license; we had the hearing; and the eventual outcome was the hearing officer found them guilty of violating it. They were given a choice – either a [$500] fine or a suspension of their ABC license for a week.”

According to Shellenberg, one bar already has been fined and is now working to comply. He hopes the other holdouts will follow.

“One of the remaining places has already voluntarily decided to stop smoking in their establishment and pursue compliance,” Shellenberg said. “We have two that have not, that we have sent 30-day notices to, that unless they do get in compliance, we will work with the ABC again and violate their ABC license.”

Many bartenders say that despite their initial reluctance, the smoking ban hasn’t been a problem, and they’re glad it’s there.

“It’s a pain in the ass to have to go outside to smoke during the winter,” said Chris Merkin, a bartender at Empire Lounge. “But it’s nice being able to work as a bartender and not come home with black boogers.”

Gary Hagy, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Food and Environmental Services, says that overall, the law has been extremely successful.

“Since the bill went into effect, we’re now at 98 percent of restaurants are in compliance with the law,” Hagy said. “I think when we have the record showing 98 percent of our restaurants are in compliance, that’s a pretty good success there.”

What Does the Smoking Ban Say?
Any establishment that serves food must:

Post “No Smoking Signs” clearly and conspicuously

Remove all ashtrays and smoking paraphernalia from the non-smoking areas

Make sure at least one entrance from the outside leads directly into the non-smoking area

If smoking is allowed, restrict it to a separate area with a separate ventilation system

Moreover, no staff members may be required to work in the smoking section
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