Lawmakers get a puff pass on smoking at work

Posted on: 12:20 am, February 5, 2013, by , updated on: 08:04am, February 6, 2013

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Virginia state employees are the walking workforce of Capitol Square.

Thousands of pedestrians display state ID badges as they cluster at crosswalks every morning and every afternoon. It’s the routine as employees from nearly 200 state agencies go to and from work.

Throughout the day some state workers cluster for another reason, to take a smoke break.  For the smoking must be done outdoors during two fifteen minute breaks per day. Those rules on smoking apply to all state employees…well, most of them.

“It’s what I would consider hypocritical,” said Senator Ralph Northam (D) Norfolk. Northam further explained that there’s a loophole most Virginians have probably never heard of.

Many remember when, in 2009, then governor Tim Kaine signed a bill into law that outlawed smoking in most bars and restaurants. But three years prior, Kaine issued an executive order that banned smoking inside every state building and vehicle.

However, that ban did not and does not apply to buildings controlled by the legislative branch. That means that people can still smoke in the General Assembly Building, said Northam.

“It sends the wrong message,” he said.

Specifically, he means the offices of Virginia’s Delegates and Senators.

“The answer is yes they do, who is doing it, I’m not sure, but it is going on in here,” said Northam.

Unlike the restaurant ban, which requires a separate ventilation system for smoking rooms, Northam claims non-smokers in the GA are often forced to catch a whiff of their colleagues taking a drag.

“Every now and then you’ll be sitting in a chair like I’m sitting in now and you’ll smell the smoke coming through the ventilation system,” said Northam.

Northam and Delegate Patrick Hope (D) Arlington co-sponsored legislation last session to try and ban smoking in all state government buildings, including the offices of lawmakers.

“Many members do smoke in their offices and it’s one of those things no one talks about,” said Hope.

In fact, the more lawmakers we spoke with, the more it became clear that smoking in the general assembly building is known to many as a common practice. Most commonly the practice is known to be cigar smoking after hours. Not all lawmakers think that’s a problem, like Delegate Greg Habeeb (R) .

Below is a  transcribed exchange between the delegate and CBS 6 Reporter Catie Beck:

Beck : ”A lot of members smoke in their offices, do you ever smoke in your office at the General Assembly building?”

Habeeb: “A lot of that goes on, I don’t actually know the rules apparently there’s something about it being private property that kind of thing”

Beck: “It is allowed, it is allowed, but have you ever done that – smoked in your office?”

Habeeb: “There are people who smoke cigars in the General Assembly Building, they try to be accommodating to people do it after hours, open a window, everybody here works to get along and tries to be accommodating to folks”

Catie: “So the answer to that would be yes?”

Habeeb: “There are very few members of the General Assembly who have not been in a room with some smoke in it”

Catie: “In the GA building?”

Habeeb: “Sure”

Beck additionally asked Habeeb about asking state employees to smoke outside, when legislators are allowed do it at their desks? He says there’s nothing unfair about that.

“There are a lot of unique aspects and some privilege issues with what you do, you work papers, you talk to constituents– for those reasons legislators offices are a different space than state buildings,” said Habeeb.

Lt. Governor Bill Bolling says the smoking ban is followed at the executive level, but says he has no problem with the legislative exemption.

“If members are smoking in their private offices that’s a different thing than smoking in public places,” said Bolling.

But Hope feels it’s a public health issue, that it’s about the hundreds of citizens who visit the GA building every day.

“All the dangers that we know about second-hand smoke, it really is crazy that we don’t do something about it,” said Hope.

State lawmakers are the only ones with power to change their own workplace rules on smoking.  But there are a number of members  who believe there should not be any smoking bans to begin with, and that the less government interference the better.

Several lawmakers told us that one of the state’s most influential lawmakers, speaker of the house William Howell, allows smoking in his office, and sometimes smokes himself while he’s at work.

CBS 6 requested a sit down interview but got no response. Next we attempted to ask him on his way to caucus at the Capitol, but were kept at bay and told the speaker was too busy for our questions.

As for Northam, he says it’s about being fair and responsible. He plans to file his bill again next year.

“This is a public building you know people come through here all the time, children,  and we need to set a good example for them,” said Northam.