Supervising Smoking


Fairfax County, Virginia, home of such early tobacco kingpins as George Washington and George Mason, was built on smoking; cured tobacco leaves were even the colonial currency. But that was then. In May, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to explore whether it could prohibit county employees from smoking anywhere, ever–including off the job.

Under a proposal by Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland, a Democrat representing the Mount Vernon area (yes, that Mount Vernon), the county just south of Washington, D.C., would have refused to hire smokers. Alternatively, it could have forced new hires to stop smoking as a condition of employment, or assigned preferences to non-smoking job applicants.

However, as The Fairfax Journal reported under a front-page banner headline, Hyland's proposal was snuffed out by County Attorney David C. Bobzien. In a June letter, Bobzien informed the board that the proposal was illegal: Virginia has what amounts to an anti-anti-smoking law. In 1989, the Richmond legislature prohibited local jurisdictions from making tobacco use a condition of employment, except for public safety personnel; local authorities can neither require that employees smoke (not a common threat), nor that they abstain. State law also limits hiring preferences to veterans.

Hyland, whose father died of lung cancer, has made similar proposals in the past. He had the support of his fellow supervisors this year because he also seeks to establish health costs to Fairfax that have resulted from tobacco use, and the board shares his hope of eventually cashing in on a federal tobacco tax bonanza. That part of Hyland's proposal survives. Though his colleagues dismissed his anti-smoking employment policy as "intrusive," they see punitive taxes on smokers as a budget opportunity. Fairfax's colonial plantations may be long buried under suburban tract housing, but tobacco's relationship to currency, there as elsewhere, remains a close one.