Some restaurants snubbing the smoking ban

By Heather Sullivan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The statewide smoking ban in restaurants and bars has been in effect for three months. The state Health Department says 87% of restaurants in Virginia are now non-smoking. However, NBC 12 sent cameras into some restaurants and found some that are not complying with the ban, and so far, none have received a court summons or fine.

The smoking ban requires all bars and restaurants in Virginia to be smoke-free unless they have a separate room with a separate ventilation system for smokers. The law allows the Health Department to refer violators to law enforcement to issue a court summons for a $25 fine.

The Coffee Pot Roadhouse at 2902 Brambleton Avenue SW in Roanoke is the only restaurant in Virginia the Health Department has referred to law enforcement for refusing to comply with the smoking ban. The inspection report notes that the owner said he could not comply with the new law without alienating most of his customers.

A month later, Roanoke Police tell us they have not issued the Coffee Pot a court summons because they're still determining how they are supposed to enforce the smoking ban. Roanoke Police say they are meeting with the Health Department on Monday.

The Coffee Pot did not return our calls, but the Health Department says the restaurant has recently agreed to comply.

We pored over state Health Department records and found inspectors told at least 8 restaurants in greater Richmond they need to comply. Weeks later, we sent our cameras into some of those restaurants and found some were still not in compliance. One had ashtrays in a non-smoking section. Another lacked a required door separating the smoking room from the non-smoking section.

Why haven't more violating restaurants been referred to law enforcement? The Health Department says they're first trying to get them into compliance. Explains Gary Hagy with the Virginia Department of Health, "We're trying to educate them, talk to them, trying to convince them to come into compliance and eventually we'll probably have to refer some to local law enforcement and ask them to take any action they think they can."

Some restaurants have told us a $25 fine is not worth losing their smoking customers. So state Senator Ralph Northam, (D) - Virginia Beach, who sponsored the law, tell us he plans to try to increase the fine and clarify how law officers can enforce it. Said Northam, "By law, the law enforcement agencies can go in and write a citation. But they're confused about it, so one of the things we need to do after this session is to make that clearer for law enforcement so they're able to go and write citations."

Overall, the Health Department says the ban is working. Said Hagy, "I think it's going well because we have the increase in smoke-free restaurants in Virginia. 95% of the places we have visited are in compliance. So from that aspect, I think it's going well."

And some restaurants say the ban has increased their business. Said Darregh O'Halloran with Legend Brewing Company, "We've definitely seen a marked increase in our business. I think it's helped our patrons in so far as 20% of the population of Virginia are smokers, so it's very nice to have a smoking area for them to come to."

(c) 2010. WWBT, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.