Atlanta city council members on Monday introduced sweeping new legislation that would outlaw smoking in many public places.
The proposed ordinance would eliminate smoking lounges at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and make all restaurants and bars in the city of Atlanta smoke-free indoors.
It would also redefine smoking to include e-cigarettes or vaping. Exempt from the smoking ban would be cigar bars and hookah lounges that meet a threshold of tobacco sales.
As currently written, the proposed ordinance includes a broad definition of public places where smoking would be prohibited — banning smoking in any enclosed public area including hotels, motels, stores, offices, public transit, restrooms and parking structures. It would also prohibit smoking within five feet of those buildings’ entrances, windows and ventilation systems.
“If people wish to smoke in public, we simply ask that they step outside,” according to city council member Matt Westmoreland. “Legislation like this saves lives. It creates a safer, healthier city,” he said.
Smoking would also be prohibited in enclosed places of employment. The city already passed in 2012 a ban on smoking in outdoor parks and the new legislation would expand that ban to include vaping.
The smoking ban would not apply to private vehicles or to homes, unless a private residence is used as a childcare or healthcare facility.
Northside Tavern, which is known for live music, only admits those 21 and older and allows smoking, owner Tommy Webb said he could be persuaded to go non-smoking.
A Georgia “smoke-free” law passed in 2005 allowed restaurants and bars like Northside Tavern to permit smoking if people under 18 are prohibited or if smoking areas are in enclosed private rooms with independent air-flow systems or outdoors.
“People have been pushing me to go to non-smoking…. It is a question that comes up often and I’m caught in the middle,” Webb said. “I’m rolling with the times.”
Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer estimates less than 10 percent of restaurants allow smoking. But those that do include establishments that depend on smoking as part of their business model, she said.
Under the city council proposal, a cigar bar or hookah lounge could be exempt from the smoking ban if it generates at least 30 percent of gross revenue from tobacco sales. Bremer called that “almost impossible” to meet, since alcohol and food sales make up such a large share.
“We don’t support smoking…. We support the right of restaurants that have chosen a specific business model to be allowed to operate under the current rules” passed by the state, Bremer said. “If the city of Atlanta has something that’s more restrictive, then there’s going to be an unfair advantage for those businesses that are outside the city limits.”
The Atlanta airport has smoking lounges on its concourses, but in anticipation of a city smoking ban, airport officials have been planning to convert those areas into restaurants and shops.
Hartsfield-Jackson,the world’s busiest airport, previously planned to convert smoking rooms into cigar lounges, but pulled back on that plan after encountering opposition.
At a meeting last month for companies interested in opening airport restaurants and shops, airport concessions director Chilly Ewing called Hartsfield-Jackson “one of the few airports where you can still smoke in the airport, for now.”
Westmoreland said many major airports and big cities in the United States already have smoke-free ordinances or policies.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in 2017 showed that Los Angeles International, Chicago O’Hare, Beijing Capital International, London Heathrow, Shanghai Pudong and Dallas/Fort Worth are among the largest airports in the world with indoor smoke-free policies.
The CDC said then that smoke-free policies protect travelers and workers from secondhand smoke, and said even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can have health consequences.
Among the U.S. airports that still allow smoking indoors in designated areas are Hartsfield-Jackson, Las Vegas McCarran, Miami International, Washington Dulles and Nashville.
In 2015, then-U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy tweeted a photo of himself in front of a Hartsfield-Jackson smoking lounge making a thumbs-down sign, with the comment: “#MadMen ended, and this should too. World’s busiest airport can be its healthiest. Make #ATL airport tobacco-free!”
Airport officials said previously that smoking rooms were “heavily used” and there was still demand for them, especially by international passengers.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson, issued a statement Monday saying it supports making the airport smoke-free. “Employees and customers who work and travel through ATL every day deserve a safe and healthy environment,” Delta said.
The path forward
Westmoreland detailed the proposal Monday before introducing the legislation at the city council’s meeting. Backing the push is the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network and other members of the Smokefree Atlanta Coalition, including the American Heart Association and American Lung Association.
Westmoreland plans to hold a work session in May to discuss the proposed ordinance.
It’s yet to be seen how the legislation could change throughout the process.
If, after the work session, the legislation is passed by committees and the full council, the ordinance as currently written would take effect Sept. 1, 2019.
Employers and facilities that violate the provisions could be punished with fines of up to $100 for a first violation and up to $200 for each additional violation in a year, according to the proposed measure.
While the legislation would prohibit smoking in hotels and motels, Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association executive director Jim Sprouse said “the vast majority” of hotels in Atlanta already ban smoking. “I don’t expect it to be an issue,” Sprouse said.
Earlier this year, The Vortex gained attention when it decided to no longer allow smoking inside its two locations in Midtown and Little Five Points, after a survey of 11,000 customers online. Manuel’s Tavern went smoke-free in 2014.
At Northside Tavern, Webb said, “part of the appeal to a lot of the people is the ability to smoke, and I try to do everything I can to not only have a good draft during the evening but to keep the place real clean so you don’t have that smoking stench. I’ve been working on that.” Northside Tavern also has an open patio that could allow smoking outdoors.
“I think if there were any negative effects on the people that do smoke, I don’t think it would impact it that much and I think it would be favorable to the new customers that just refuse to come in because of the smoking,” Webb said. “I think there’s an offset somewhere.”
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