Va. Smoking Ban Sparks Culture Clash

Vietnamese-American community says ban hurts business

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
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    LONDON - MAY 16: In this photo illustration a man smokes a cigarette on May 16, 2007 in London. Businesses and shops are gearing up for the introduction of the smoking ban on July 1 in England after similar bans have been introduced in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (Photo Illustration by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

    The first showdown over Virginia's new smoking law is brewing not in the heart of the state's tobacco country, but in a suburban shopping mall five miles from the nation's capital better known for banh mi sandwiches and homemade head cheese.

    More than 100 shops at the Eden Center cater to customers looking for a taste of Vietnam, from bakeries and restaurants to karaoke bars and nightclubs. And for some, the authentic experience of a Saigon-style nightclub includes lighting up.
    That tobacco-friendly culture is butting heads with the smoking law, which with a few exceptions has made it illegal to smoke in restaurants and bars.
    The law took effect Dec. 1, after four years of pushing by the administration of then-Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine in a state that is home not only to numerous tobacco farms in Southside Virginia but also the world's largest cigarette factory.   However, it wasn't enforced until earlier this month, when the Falls Church Police Department issued 13 citations at Eden Center businesses  -- nine to customers for smoking inside a restaurant and four to business owners for allowing people to light up.
    The penalty is not severe -- a $25 fine. But Dylan Nguyen, manager of the Tay Do restaurant at Eden Center, said aggressive enforcement is cutting business by more than 20 percent.
    "Asian men -- nearly all of us smoke,'' said Nguyen, who came to the U.S. as a child from Vietnam and manages the family-owned restaurant, which doubles on weekends as a nightclub. Global health statistics bear him out: according to the World Health Organization, Vietnamese men have among the highest smoking rates in the world.
    Nguyen said he has tried to enforce the no-smoking rules, but some customers are defiant. Others, when urged to go outside to light up, skip out on the bill.
    "People don't want to go out because they see cops out everywhere'' on the lookout for smokers," Nguyen said.
    Falls Church police said they issued tickets only after multiple complaints and warnings. And most agencies have higher priorities than writing out citations that carry a small fine, said Dana Schrad, executive director for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
     
    "With parking tickets, if they accumulate, you can eventually tow the vehicle. You don't even have that with the smoking law," Schrad said.
    Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh said local police are doing what they're supposed to --  following up on complaints from citizens. He doesn't think enforcing the smoking law will significantly reduce business at Eden Center or the taxes it generates.
    "I really view it as a health issue for the individuals who are nonsmokers and for the workers," Baroukh said. "In no way do I view this as being unfriendly to business."
    Since the law took effect, health department inspectors have checked more than 24,000 bars and restaurants as part of the normal inspection process, said Gary Hagy, director of food and environmental services at the Virginia Department of Health. More than 97 percent of establishments are in compliance with the law, Hagy said.
    Hagy calls that a success, but still more than 600 restaurants and bars across the state have not complied with the law. Hagy said that while many of those 600-plus restaurants are working to get legal - perhaps by establishing a separately ventilated smoking section - others have said they don't plan to follow the law.
    And Hagy's office can't do much about it. While officials can shut down a restaurant if it violates the health codes for, say, storing foods at improper temperatures, they cannot enforce the smoking ordinance. Health officials can only refer cases to police for possible enforcement.
    Virginia is among 39 states that have passed laws barring smoking in certain indoor workplaces, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though the laws vary greatly in terms of their exemptions. But the $25 fine imposed by Virginia is among the weakest penalties.
    Hagy said he suspects the enforcement actions in Falls Church may prod some recalcitrant owners to change their ways.
    State Sen. Ralph S. Northam, D-Norfolk, a lead sponsor of the legislation, said he is generally pleased with how it's working, though he's amenable to some tweaks. Some restaurants, he said, have established a no-smoking room the size of a closet that they claim complies with a rule allowing smoking if a nonsmoking room is sealed off and separately ventilated.
    "We can look to see if we need to put more teeth in it,'' he said. "But most people, most restaurants have complied.''
    At Tay Do, the fine against the restaurant itself is bad, Nguyen said, but even worse is the prospect of customers getting a ticket. While Nguyen said he wants to obey the law, the new rules put him at odds with his customers. "I think it's better to do business in Vietnam than here," Nguyen said.
    The vice president and general counsel of the Eden Center mall, Alan Frank, said the mall is thriving and the smoking ban won't
    change that. The mall has been a success because it offers such an authentic experience, with foods and shops that cater to Vietnamese tastes. He acknowledged, though, that a smoky nightclub is part of that authentic experience.
    "Maybe it does take away a little from what a Saigon cafe might be like," Frank said. "But things have to change sometimes.''