The tobacco fields are weeping in Virginia

I’ve written about smoking bans in the past, but I suspected the push to enact them in Virginia would take longer. Not so:

The Virginia Senate voted Monday to ban smoking in restaurants and virtually all other public places, an extraordinary sign of cultural change in a state that is home to the worldwide headquarters of Philip Morris and whose agricultural economy has been rooted in tobacco farming for almost 400 years.

The bill is unlikely to survive review in the House of Delegates. Yet its passage on the floor of the Senate — where smoking has never been formally banned and lawmakers lit up openly even until the late 1990s — signaled mounting popular support for smoking restrictions.

The second paragraph is the key support for my original conclusion. The House won’t pass this, and Governor Tim Kaine (D) opposes it, but I’m still amazed that it passed the Senate. Just as interesting, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, is a Republican. First came tax increases (pushed by Democrat Mark Warner/passed by Republican General Assembly) and now anti-property rights anti-smoking legislation? Remind me again how Virginia is a bastion of limited government conservatives?

That should be enough lunacy surrounding one bill, but we’ve abandoned all hope of reason, so there’s more:

“This is not about whether I prefer or do not prefer the smell of smoke,” said Sen. J. Brandon Bell II, the sponsor. “This is about public health. . . . The research has come forward over the years, and it’s shown us that secondhand cigarette smoke is a very insidious health problem.”

It’s not about whether or not Sen. Bell prefers the smell of smoke. It’s about whether or not he prefers property rights. That shouldn’t be a hard distinction. But with arguments like this next one, who’s surprised:

“This shows that Virginia is ready to move its way to where the mainstream is on health issues,” said Keenan Caldwell, director of government relations for the [American Cancer Society]’s regional office. “People are starting to see, even in Virginia and other tobacco-growing states, that there is proven science about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.”

There’s proven science about the harmful effects. So what? There’s also a previously-accepted principle that property rights trump everything. I win the intellectual fight. But this isn’t about who is right. Clearly that’s not getting anything for those of us with principles, especially when this is a justification:

“It makes you really pay attention,” Bell said. “I may have reservations about increased regulations [on businesses], but this is something that people seem to want to be regulated.”

When we come to the conclusion that regulation is good and appropriate because people want it, with no further consideration necessary, what are we left fighting over? Which television programs and books my neighbors think it’s acceptable for me to consume? Smashing.

Some sanity remains, of course:

… opposition has been spearheaded by the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, which represents restaurants. The group lobbied vigorously against an early version of the bill that would have given localities the ability to regulate indoor smoking, complaining that the option would lead to a patchwork of regulations and pit businesses in neighboring counties against one another.

So Bell moved forward with the statewide smoking ban and picked up enough support to pass the bill, 21 to 18.

Those who voted against the measure said the marketplace is already pushing many restaurants to ban smoking, without government regulation. They said businesses should have the right to cater to their customers.

“We’re talking about a legal product that’s licensed and sold in Virginia — that’s taxed and taxed and taxed,” said Sen. Charles R. Hawkins (R-Pittsylvania), who represents tobacco growers. “Now we’re saying we know better than people who operate their own businesses what they can do.”

Count me among those not amazed that market forces have the ability to solve the problem.