For tobacco states, a change is in the air


The changing face of the Old Dominion can be seen in the stuff Jimmy Cirrito sweeps up off the floor of his bar every night. It used to be cigarette butts -- now it’s gum.

“I got Nicorette and Bubblicious and green and yellow and purple. It looks like a circus down there,” said Cirrito, owner of Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern in the northern Virginia suburb of Herndon, where patrons once smoked so much they burned holes in the curtains. Now they chew to fight the urge.

It’s been one month since Virginia became the first Southern state to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. For about 400 years, that was an unthinkable proposition. George Washington grew tobacco at Mount Vernon. Marlboro-making Philip Morris USA is headquartered in Richmond.


But the same demographic shift that helped Virginia pull off another unlikely feat -- supporting Barack Obama for president -- has fueled a smoking ban in the state where the tobacco industry was practically born. A more moderate, college-educated batch of newcomers is changing the cultural landscape here and across the South. In North Carolina, the king of tobacco producers, a similar law took effect Saturday.

“They are people who go to white-tablecloth restaurants, not barbecue joints. They don’t want their kids to smoke, they don’t smoke, and they are not tied to the tobacco economy,” said Ferrel Guillory of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now Virginia hovers at that odd intersection between what was and what will be. The “golden leaf,” as it is affectionately known, still flourishes in the red soil of a few farms. But Virginia counts itself among 29 states and the District of Columbia to restrict smoking in just about any public place where people eat or drink. Private clubs and separately ventilated smoking rooms are exempt.

This did not occur without a fight. Gov. Tim Kaine was pushed back more than once in his quest for a more smoke-free Virginia. The tobacco, restaurant and hospitality industries rose up. Businesses would suffer, they cried. Owners should decide how to run their restaurants, they protested.

Cirrito was among them. “This is America, and we’re supposed to have freedom,” he said. But as he closed out his December books, Cirrito had to admit the law has its good points.

His business, a tavern and restaurant in a historic, crooked building, was booked solid for New Year’s Eve. Food sales are up. He added extra shifts in the dining room, which means more money for his wait staff, most of whom were thrilled to work in cleaner air. “We can smell things in the bar now we never smelled before,” he rejoiced.

Smoking was banned on a Tuesday, and on Friday there was a line of families out the door, waiting for a dinner table.

“They didn’t come before because they could see the smoke in the bar or were allergic to it or had to walk through it to get to the bathroom,” said Cirrito, who’s a nonsmoker but never begrudged his customers the pleasure.

To his surprise, a lot of the chain-smoking regulars came too, lighting up outside in the cold, chewing gum between smokes and, in the end, smoking less.

“I’m sticking by my guns; it should be the owner’s choice. But I have to say it’s nothing but a good thing. It’s fantastic. I can breathe. We can all breathe again,” Cirrito said. “People who were smoking two packs are smoking one.”

This turnabout astounds people like Julian and Edwina Covington, who never envisioned the day Virginia would snub its cash crop. His family ran a tobacco farm -- “tabacc-ah,” they call it -- for five generations just west of Richmond until the government subsidies stopped and he had to retire. Neither of the Covingtons smokes the stuff; they just love to grow it.

It’s as much a part of Virginia lore as Jamestown and Pocahontas. This was a struggling colony until John Rolfe introduced a tobacco variety around 1614 that set off a trade boom with Europe. By the American Revolution, Virginia was rich and powerful.

Yet even then, the soil-leaching crop was the subject of controversy. Thomas Jefferson pronounced it “infinitely wretched” and grew grains instead at Monticello.

But when Virginia stood in ruins after the Civil War, tobacco helped lift it back to glory. By the mid-20th century, 1 in 15 workers in Richmond were employed by cigarette makers.

Now Julian Covington, 65, who was pinching the heads off worms in the fields when he was 6, is left to stick a few plants in his garden every summer just for fun. He loves tobacco so much, he wrote a little book about it.

“You wouldn’t believe,” he says, searching for words to describe how much he misses getting up before the sun to tend the dark-fired leaves, big as elephant ears. “Lord, that would be something,” he said, imagining a day when tobacco might reign again.

Not likely. On Dec. 1, the day the ban kicked in, Cirritos gathered up all the ashtrays in his bar, autographed them and sold them as souvenirs for $3 apiece. He donated the money to the American Cancer Society.