- Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 February 2009 20:15
- Published on Wednesday, 11 February 2009 20:15
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Virginia, in the 21st century, has a diverse economy. There is manufacturing, mining, all sorts of agricultural products, a strong financial services industry, research and high tech engineering.
However, there was a time, not that long ago, when tobacco dominated our economy. Just 25 years ago the tobacco industry was responsible for 54,000 jobs in the Commonwealth. Today it’s substantially smaller. Until recently, save for some crusading anti-smokers who didn’t mind tilting at windmills, no one would ever think of uttering a word about regulating the industry or for that matter the consumption of its products.
Indeed, tobacco occupies an almost mystical part of Virginia’s history. If it hadn’t been for John Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco to the Virginia Colony back in 1612, it’s doubtful that the struggling settlement would have survived. The colonists had tried to make money in gold, silk, soap ash, and timber, but none of these were successful. It looked like the Colony in Virginia was headed for failure. But, tobacco changed all that.
Almost over night, the Virginia Colony turned into a financial success. Virginia tobacco, whose original breed was based on a plant grown in Trinidad, was in demand all over Europe. Fortunes were made and dynasties secured. Tobacco, as the lynchpin of the state’s economy was secure.
However, those days are past. Tobacco farming and cigarette production is still an important segment of our economy, but other concerns, about health and second hand smoke are finally being heard. Earlier in the year, the legislature considered an increase in the tobacco tax. It didn’t make it. But one change, that’s on the verge of becoming law, and frankly I never thought would see the light of day, is a restriction on the consumption of tobacco in restaurants.
There is strong statistical evidence that smoking isn’t just harmful to the smoker, it’s also bad for those around them. According to the Virginia Department of Health some 1,700 people die because of the effects of second hand smoke. Restaurant workers in particular are considered uniquely vulnerable since they have to put up with the smoke for their entire shift. The Governor has been a supporter of restricting tobacco use in restaurants for several years, but his proposals haven’t gotten very far in the past. However, this year it’s a different story. In a move that surprised both sides, Speaker of the House Bill Howell (R-Stafford) put aside partisan politics on this issue and has worked with Senate leaders and the Governor to craft a compromise bill. It’s one that is for the most part acceptable to all sides. It’s not an outright ban, but it represents the first statewide attempt to restrict smoking in a public place and it’s a major step forward in promoting public health.
Under the proposal smoking will be banned in restaurants. However, the owners, if they want to continue to allow their patrons to smoke, will be obliged to construct a separate and sealed smoking area. Some facilities are likely to do this while others might find it easier just to go along with the ban. Interestingly enough many restaurant owners don’t mind the idea of a ban, just as long as it applies equally to their competitors.
The hard core no-smoking advocates, and some of them aren’t happy with this deal, wanted a complete ban. No smoking in a restaurant, at all, no matter what. This has worked just fine in some states, but this is Virginia. Given the politics of the state, and its love affair with tobacco they should realize that this is a policy change of historical proportions and welcome it.
On the other side of the spectrum there are the folks who note, rightly, that tobacco is a legal product and further say that interfering with its consumption violates individual rights. They aren’t too interested in the second hand smoke argument. They consider the statistics dubious and want to smoke wherever they please.
At the moment, Phillip Morris, the state’s biggest tobacco producer, hasn’t taken a position on the ban, while the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association is opposing it. However, with a majority of the State Senate, the strong and possibly firm handed support of Speaker Howell, Virginia, in an amazing step is likely going to regulate public the consumption of tobacco. From a public health standpoint this is a change that can’t come any too soon. It’s been said that the Virginia General Assembly, given its deep divisions and partisan hostility, has trouble agreeing on whether it’s day or night. Let alone passing needed legislation. However, if this bill passes, then all I can say is - nicely done.