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F.C. Council Mulls Smoking Ban On Restaurants, Minors in Public

May Form Task Force to Review Issues Involved

The Falls Church City Council began deliberations at a work session Tuesday on greater restrictions against smoking in public places in the city. In particular, it took up the issue of smoking in restaurants, but some Council members indicated they may push for new legislation that’s even more comprehensive.

One was emphatic about wanting to make smoking in public by underage youth a crime.

The subject of new regulations on smoking came from a restaurateur in town, Mayor Robin Gardner told the Council. She said the business owner was concerned that his own intention to ban smoking in establishment would lead to a loss of his business, when in fact his plans would probably be good policy for all restaurants.

The City of Alexandria has already passed a stiff new prohibition on smoking in restaurants, following similar moves in Maryland and the District of Columbia, but has not yet implemented it. Alexandria’s new law could run into legal challenges because it linked the smoking prohibition issue to its zoning laws.

“Some could construe that as an attempt to take away property rights,” Falls Church City Attorney Roy Thorpe cautioned the Council here Tuesday. He said that a better approach would be to subsume a ban under the Council’s legal right to attend to the public’s “health, safety and welfare.”

The City’s charter, he added, gives the Council the full right to regulate smoking as it sees fit.

The Council concurred that it would proceed cautiously on the matter, seeking the advice and counsel of the Greater Falls Church Chamber of Commerce in the earliest stages. “Our first stop will be the Chamber,” said Mayor Robin Gardner.

“We have to establish that there is a need to do something like this,” added Councilman David Snyder. “We don’t want something like this to devolve into a fight with our business community.” But, he added, the welfare of employees of City establishments, in terms of the health impact of secondary smoke, needs also to be taken into account.

“There is no stampede going on here,” added Councilman Dan Maller. He said the City should first assess the fiscal impact of its decision last spring to impose a stiff increase on its cigarette tax.

In the past, the Council was reluctant to increase that tax fearing it would drive away business from the City and ultimately cost more, in terms of lost sales tax revenue, than it would gain. But there is no data yet on whether that is actually becoming the case. The new tax went into effect just two months ago.

“I don’t like smoking, but the idea that you can’t smoke in a bar is perfectly ridiculous,” Maller added.

Others suggested there might be a prohibition that would be in effect until 10 p.m., allowing family diners protection from smoke while allowing bar patrons arriving later to smoke.

Councilman Dan Sze suggested that any smoking ban not extend to so-called “cigar bars,” were one to open in the City. It was noted that most of those establishments have superior ventilation systems to dispel the lingering effects of smoke.

But Vice Mayor Lindy Hockenberry, herself a long-time middle school teacher, extended the discussion to include underage smoking in public.

“I know I am not going to make myself popular with this, but if its against the law for an underage person to buy cigarettes, it ought to also be against the law for them to smoke cigarettes in public,” she said.

“I get so upset seeing them walking down the street smoking. It really upsets me,” she said.

It was noted that the practice of throwing cigarette butts out of car windows is already technically against the law, construed as “throwing a projectile from a moving vehicle.”

City Manager Wyatt Shields suggested that the Council consider forming a task force to explore options for new regulations. There were no decisions made Tuesday about moving the matter forward.