Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Enforcement of VA smoking ban is hazy

http://hamptonroads .com/2009/ 12/enforcement- virginia- smoking-ban- bars-and- restaurants- hazy


Quietly signs went up Tuesday signaling to customers that things had changed.

On the first day of the state ban on smoking inside restaurants, police didn't storm into bars, snuffing out cigarettes and doling out $25 fines. And state officials didn't troll for lawbreakers, writing up health-code violations for restaurant owners to address.

Things were more subtle - the absence of ashtrays and a new box for health inspectors to check when evaluating restaurants. Diners should have been able to breathe a little easier, said officials with the Virginia Department of Health.

But enforcement of the law was largely left to business owners and customers, said Larry Hill, regional spokesman for the state Health Department.

"This is something that's just started, and what we're looking for more than anything else is self-compliance, " he said.

Because violating the ban carries a civil fine, not a criminal charge, police weren't out looking for people lighting up inside restaurants, said Officer Jimmy Barnes, a police spokesman. And because health department officials aren't authorized to write fines, they weren't actively patrolling either, Hill said.

Rather, over the next three months, health inspectors will be focusing their efforts on restaurants and bars listed as smoking establishments, said Gary Hagy, director of the Division of Food and Environmental Services for the Virginia Department of Health.

If they find infractions, they'll write a health-code violation and work with the business owner to address it. If they refuse to comply, police can write a court summons, he said.

If customers report a noncompliant business, inspectors will investigate, as with other types of complaints, Hagy said.

And if a smoker refuses to leave a business, the owner can call the police and report them for trespassing, Barnes said. But that's a "worst -case scenario," he said.

Employees at several bars, including the Regal Beagle Taphouse & Grill at the Oceanfront and A.J. Gator's Sports Bar & Grill on Holland Road, said they didn't have any problems enforcing the new rules Tuesday.

The General Assembly approved the ban in February. It prohibits smoking in businesses that serve food unless there's a separate ventilation system for smoking areas. Private clubs are exempt.

Overall, Hagy said, they're relying on the honor system to keep the air clear.

"We anticipate that most restaurants are going to do the right thing," Hagy said. "And they're going to be respectful of the citizens, respectful of their patrons, and comply with the law."

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