WHILE an increasing number of communities around the nation are protecting nonsmokers, the state of Virginia may soon pass legislation that leaves its citizens in a smoky haze. In a bill that may be passed early next week, Virginia is close to mandating that private employers and the boards of hospitals and higher education facilities will be the ``sole authority'' for designating smoking or non-smoking sections. Local municipalities would be prevented from regulating smoking.
A second bill, also due for a vote early next week, would prohibit the state or any municipality from requiring employees not to smoke when they are off the job. Cities could still prohibit firefighters and police officers, since their jobs, considered stressful, are a high health risk.
Antismoking groups say the Virginia legislation may set a bad precedent. Earlier this week, they were considering getting someone from the US surgeon general's office to travel to Richmond, Va., to join in the debate.
``Voluntarism is not sufficient when you have a public health hazard,'' says Linda McMinimy, who represents the Virginia Lung and Heart Associations.
This preemption-type of legislation - that prevents localities from making up their own rules - is the latest tobacco-industry tactic in dealing with grass-roots movements that are trying to limit smoking in public places.
For example, Florida and Pennsylvania passed clean indoor air acts that include preemptive legislation that would prevent local communities from passing anything stronger than the state law. New Jersey passed similar preemptive legislation dealing with smoking in the workplace. And such restrictions are attached to a bill under consideration in Georgia which would restrict smoking in places where there is state funding.
What makes the Virginia situation quite different, however, is that the state has yet to pass a clean indoor air act. Such legislation was narrowly defeated this year in the Virginia Senate and has not gone very far in its House.
The sponsor of the Clean Air Act, Sen. Thomas Michie Jr. (D) of Charlottesville says he intends to reintroduce the legislation next session. He cites public opinion polls that have consistently shown Virginia voters favor smoking restrictions.
GETTING legislation through, however, isn't easy because of strong tobacco-industry clout.
Philip Morris Inc. maintains an operations center in Richmond and manufactures cigarettes in the state. According to the state Department of Agriculture, farmers made $150 million selling tobacco last year.
The tobacco industry is a major employer, hiring 13,700 workers, according to the state Department of Commerce. It is not afraid of using those workers to influence the legislature. Anne Morrow Donley of the Virginia Group to Alleviate Smoking in Public (GASP) says Philip Morris bused in 200 workers to the capital to stage a protest against the Clean Air Act.
The sponsor of the current legislation, Virgil Goode Jr. of Rocky Mount, Va., says the tobacco industry indicated to him that it supported his legislation and the idea of letting employers make their own smoking rules. However, as some local businesses have found, attempts to voluntarily set up nonsmoking areas are criticized by the tobacco industry.
This past December, after the Ukrop's grocery chain, located in central Virginia, posted a ``Thank You for Not Smoking'' sign at checkout counters, Philip Morris urged the readers of its ``Virginia Smoker'' newsletter to write the central Virginia grocer.
The pressure hit a sensitive nerve. ``We understand tobacco is an important product,'' says Carol Beth Spivey, a spokeswoman for Ukrop's.
Such pressure by the tobacco companies ``stifles voluntary efforts,'' Ms. McMinimy says.
However, Mr. Goode says, ``I am told that 66 percent of the people in the state prefer a grocery store without smoke. If a grocer wanted to respond, he would put a nonsmoking area.''
He says his reason for introducing the legislation is to prevent ``a hodgepodge of local ordinances.''
``With Goode's legislation, you will have an even bigger hodgepodge as thousands of businesses make up their own laws,'' counters Mrs. McMinimy. ``It would prevent the legislature from addressing the responsibility of the private sector.''