Atlanta City Council votes for ban on smoking in public places

The Atlanta City Council voted Monday to institute a broad-reaching ban on smoking and vaping in restaurants, bars, workplaces and many other public places in the city, as well as at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Council members voted 13-2 in favor of the ordinance, which if signed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms would prohibit smoking and vaping in bars, restaurants, places of employment, hotel and motel rooms and other enclosed public areas starting Jan. 2, 2020. The prohibition would cover cigarettes, cigars and electronic cigarettes.

Advocates said they want to reduce health risks to nonsmokers, and that smoke-free policies can reduce smoking rates and prevent young people from starting to smoke.

“Everyone in Atlanta has the right to breathe smoke-free air,” said council member Matt Westmoreland, lead sponsor of the legislation. The law advances public health “while doing our best to protect the small businesses,” he added.

Smoking was already restricted by a Georgia law passed in 2005, which prohibited smoking in restaurants and bars unless people under 18 are prohibited or if smoking areas are in enclosed private rooms with independent air-flow systems, or outdoors.

Atlanta City Council member Matt Westmoreland, who sponsored the smoke-free legislation. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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The new city of Atlanta ordinance would be more restrictive by prohibiting smoking and vaping in bars and restaurants across the board and closing those loopholes — although the legislation was amended just before the final vote to allow smoking in outdoor seating and serving areas of restaurants and bars.

Council members Howard Shook and J.P. Matzigkeit voted against the ban.

“I am against smoking, but I am for the freedom of people to choose,” Matzigkeit said.

Some places would be exempt from the ban, including private residences, tobacco and vape stores, private clubs and cigar bars, and other establishments that ban minors and generate at least 20 percent of their annual gross revenue, or $250,000, from tobacco product sales.

The ordinance would also prohibit smoking inside the Atlanta airport, which would prompt the closure of smoking rooms on the concourses.

The airport already has outdoor smoking areas outside the domestic terminal and international terminal — but passengers connecting between flights would need to exit security during their layover in order to smoke.

The Atlanta ordinance was the result of a years-long push by a coalition led by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network and dozens of other local, state and national medical and health organizations.

Secondhand smoke “causes the same diseases as we see with direct tobacco inhalation,” including heart disease and cancer, said Len Lichtenfeld, acting chief medical officer for the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society, who spoke in favor of the ban at the City Council meeting Monday.

On the opposing side, local restaurateurs organized to seek exemptions to the new restrictions.

According to the Georgia Restaurant Association, Atlanta has about 3,000 restaurants. About 50 of them, less than 2 percent, permit smoking. Of those, 20 are cigar bars.

Mike Dana, owner of Johnny’s Hideaway in Buckhead, is among the restaurateurs who wanted an exemption to grandfather-in restaurants that already allow smoking.

“Smoking has been an integral part of our business,” Dana said. “A ban would cripple our business.”

Others pushed for an exemption for adult entertainment establishments.

"Smoking is becoming a trending culture, from hookahs to cigar bars," said Je' Wesley Day, president of the Atlanta Nightlife Alliance. "Don't tell me what I can do for my customers."

Council member Marci Collier Overstreet proposed an amendment for adult entertainment establishments, but it failed.

Kay Jackson, who operates cigarette vending machines, asked the City Council, “Is it not fair for (smokers) to have their little 2 percent or 3 percent of bars where they can go hang out and socialize with other smokers?”

“When you take away the rights of one group just because they smoke, which is legal,” Jackson said, “that’s not liberty and justice for all.”

Those offended by smoking already have thousands of other restaurants to choose from that do not allow smoking, said Hal Nowak, who owns Hal's The Steakhouse, which allows smoking in its downstairs bar.

"What's next after smoking? Health experts claim that drinking alcohol, eating fast food and drinking soft drinks are bad for your health too," Nowak said. "Does that mean our beloved Coca-Cola might be the next target?"

Dave Pratt, who lives in Kirkwood and works as a consultant in Midtown, also wanted a grandfather clause for restaurants that already allow smoking.

“If they want to ban (smoking), I understand it. There are health concerns. It is their charge to look after the welfare of their citizenry,” Pratt siad. “My contention is it is also their charge to look after the liberty and personal freedoms that their citizens have as well.”

But Lucy Popova, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, whose research focuses on tobacco risk, called it a matter of rights rather than a matter of choice.

“Poor people are exposed to secondhand smoke in much greater levels,” Popova said. “It’s their right to work in a place that’s free from secondhand smoke.”


  • 25 states and more than 1,000 municipalities have smoke-free policies
  • More than 80 percent of the 35 busiest airports in the country are smoke-free indoors
  • Last week, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban e-cigarette sales
  • Atlanta's new ordinance would ban smoking in restaurants and bars, at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, at places of employment, in hotel and motel rooms, long-term care facilities, and other public areas.
  • Exempt from the new Atlanta ordinance would be private residences, tobacco and vape shops, private clubs, as well as cigar bars and other establishments that ban minors and generate 20 percent or $250,000 of their annual gross revenue from tobacco sales.

Source: American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, AJC research