Clearing the Haze:  The Proportion of Smoke-Free Restaurants

In Virginia Localities, 2009


Once again the General Assembly is grappling with a ban on smoking in Virginia’s restaurants and bars.  The following report – in the form of two maps and accompanying analysis of the proportion of smoke-free restaurants in Virginia’s counties and independent cities – is designed to shed light on the current situation in the Commonwealth as of the beginning of 2009.  Information on restaurants that currently are smoke-free in Virginia localities is derived from data provided by the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Environmental Health Services (OEHS).1  They report the number of restaurants in each Virginia locality that are completely smoke-free, have restricted smoking policies, or allow smoking anywhere; the statistic used here is the percentage of all fast-food and full-service restaurants that are smoke-free in each locality.  It must be remembered that Virginia law stipulates that if an establishment serves alcohol on the premises, it also must serve food (measured as a percentage of total sales) and therefore is considered a restaurant for the purpose of the data.  The OEHS statistics exclude institutional facilities such as schools, hospitals, or prisons.  Calculations of the number of Virginians involved is based on 2008 provisional population estimates.2  That information then was applied to two maps.


According to the data from OEHS, of 134 Virginia localities, the majority of restaurants in 101 localities (75.4 percent of all those in the Commonwealth) do not permit smoking.  Those localities account for nearly seven million Virginians or 90.1 percent of the total population.  Of the localities where the majority of restaurants already are smoke-free, forty-three (32.1 percent of all localities; 4.3 million Virginians) attain a level of smoke-free restaurants that exceeds sixty-five percent.  Therefore, over half (55.7 percent) of Virginians reside in localities where over two-thirds of the restaurants currently do not permit smoking.  Only thirty-three localities (24.6 percent of all localities) fall below the fifty percent mark for smoke-free restaurants, affecting 772,112 Virginians (9.9 percent of all Commonwealth residents).


The two maps below illustrate the distribution of restaurants that already are smoke-free in Virginia’s counties and cities.  Both maps use shades of gray to represent localities in which the majority (lighter gray) or more than two-thirds (darker gray) of its restaurants prohibit smoking and white for those localities in which less than half of its restaurants ban smoking.  Figure 1 shows that with the exceptions of Charles City County (thirty-three percent smoke-free) and Petersburg City (eight percent smoke-free), all of the localities of the Golden Crescent (the I-95/I64 corridor) exceed the fifty percent smoke-free mark.  In other parts of the state, the Northern Neck, Inner Piedmont, Shenandoah Valley (excluding Page County), and Southwest Virginia as far down as Smyth County all attain at least the majority smoke-free mark.  In fact, all of Northern Virginia, Henrico County in the Richmond area, the upper Shenandoah Valley, and much of the Lower Peninsula meet or exceed the two-thirds smoke-free level.  Craig County in western Virginia is the only locality with all of its restaurants smoke-free.  The largest concentration of counties with the majority of their restaurants allowing smoking is found in a swath of localities from Louisa County in Central Virginia down to Southside (excluding Mecklenburg and Brunswick) and in the far Southwest (excluding Dickinson and Scott Counties).  Charlotte County (along with Petersburg City) has the lowest smoke-free percentage at eight percent.




Figure 1: Choropleth map of smoke-free restaurant rates in Virginia, 2009.


The patterns in the map correspond closely with the 2006 rates of adult cigarette smoking in Virginia’s health districts published by the Virginia Tobacco Use Control Project.3  The lowest reported rates of adult cigarette smoking in the period 2004 to 2006 – less than sixteen percent – were in the Northern Virginia (the independent cities as well as Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties) and Henrico County health districts.  Health districts with the second lowest adult smoking rates – sixteen percent to twenty percent – encompass almost all of the other smoke-free localities in the upper Shenandoah Valley, the Charlottesville area, and lower Hampton Roads.  The highest rates of adult smoking are found in the health districts that include eastern and western Southside and the far Southwest.  It is worth noting that the Southside and Southwest counties are the last ones in which tobacco still is an important cash crop.


Figure 1 can be a bit misleading in that it overstates the importance of the localities in white that are not majority smoke-free.  A more effective type of map for revealing the true state of the extent of smoke-free Virginia is called a cartogram.  Cartograms change the size and shape of map items according to some statistical measure.  We’ve become accustomed to seeing these in regard to national elections because they have been used to both explain the proportional nature of the Electoral College and to de-emphasize the seemingly overwhelming red that was used to represent Republican states in 2000 and 2004.  Figure 2 is a cartogram of Virginia that is based on 2003 population estimates, which de-emphasizes rural areas and accentuates the Golden Crescent and independent cities.4  The map shows the overwhelming size of populations in Northern Virginia, Metro Richmond, and Hampton Roads as well as the scattered independent cities in comparison to rural counties that may be large in area but smaller in population.  Therefore, the white areas of the map – localities in which less than half of the restaurants are smoke-free – shrink considerably.  No other map illustrates the situation in Virginia better:  localities with a majority or greater of smoke-free restaurants far outweigh those that contain mostly smoke-friendly restaurants.




Figure 2: Cartogram of smoke-free restaurant rates in Virginia, 2003.

Localities have been resized according to 2003 population estimates.


Thirty-four states have statewide smoking bans and most of them achieved that under the auspices of smoke-free work environments, including neighboring Maryland and Tennessee.  If other states are any measure, the last holdouts for smoking will remain bars, lounges, and clubs and that certainly has been a sticking point in recent years in Virginia.  It is important to note that the rate of cigarette smoking among Virginia’s adult population as a whole is on the decline, reported rates declining from 22.6 percent in 2000 to 19.3 percent in 2006.5  The declining rate of smoking may explain why so many restaurants already prohibit smoking.  That decline may also make a smoking ban inevitable.

The findings of this study are not meant to promote any particular side of the smoking ban debate in Virginia.  Over nine out of ten Virginians already live in localities with a majority or more of their restaurants banning smoking.  That fact cuts both ways:  some might say that most establishments already are smoke-free, so a ban is redundant; others might say that because most localities are smoke-free, then the entire Commonwealth might as well be.  Those are political and philosophical concerns that the data cannot address.





1Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Office of Environmental Health Services (OEHS), "Commonwealth of Virginia, Non-smoking establishments" (; accessed January 30, 2009).


2Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Demographics & Workforce Group, "Population Estimates for Virginia, Localities, Planning Districts, & Metropolitan Areas: Final 2007 & Provisional 2008" (www.coopercenter/org/demographics/; January 27, 2009; accessed February 5, 2009).  All population figures are drawn from the 2008 provisional estimates.


3Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Control (CDPC), Virginia Tobacco Use Control Project (VTUCP), "Adult Cigarette Smoking in Virginia," Figure 3. Cigarette Smoking by Health District, Adults 18 and Older, Virginia, 2004-2006 (; January 15, 2008; accessed January 31, 2009).


4Les Brown, "MAPresso Cartogram" (; accessed October 20, 2008).  The cartogram base map was created using MAPresso Version 1.3 Java applet and scaled by 2003 population estimates.  All of the maps were produced using MapInfo Professional 6.0.


5VDH, CDPC, VTUCP, "Adult Cigarette Smoking in Virginia", Figure 1. Current Smoking Prevalence, U.S. and Virginia, 1990 to 2006 (; January 15, 2008; accessed January 31, 2009).



Dr. David S. Hardin

Associate Professor of Geography

Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences

Longwood University




Created February 10, 2009

Revised February 13, 2009