A tighter anti-smoking ordinance that would ban lighting up within nearly all bars and restaurants is under consideration by the Atlanta City Council. One health organization backing the move says it’s intended to inspire similar laws statewide, but Perimeter Center cities say they aren’t changing their codes for now.

“I would fully expect that after Atlanta passes its ordinance, more [cities] will,” said Andy Freeman, the Georgia government relations director for the Cancer Action Network, a lobbying affiliate of the American Cancer Society.

A landmark state law in 2005, the Smokefree Air Act, largely banned indoor smoking in Georgia’s “public places,” meaning government buildings and private businesses. Atlanta added some tweaks at the time, but there were also some large exemptions. Bars and restaurants can allow smoking in private rooms or if they exclude customers or workers who are under 18. Electronic cigarettes and vaping weren’t covered in the current law. And Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and some city offices were allowed to have smoking lounges.

Atlanta City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland

The new Atlanta ordinance, introduced April 15 by City Councilmembers Andre Dickens and Matt Westmoreland, would eliminate those exemptions, among others, within city limits. The idea is to prevent workers and customers from being exposed to the many health hazards of smoking without warning or practical choice.

Since the 2005 state law was passed, “basically every city in America” has banned smoking outright in businesses and “continue to move the ball forward to making their cities smoke-free,” Westmoreland said in a phone interview. Atlanta remains one of the few major American cities to allow smoking inside bars and restaurants.

“Everything we’re talking about is indoors. People will be able to smoke outdoors as they always have,” Westmoreland added – though smoking in parks and within five feet of business doorways and windows is or would be banned. “And obviously, we’re not touching people’s private homes or their cars.”

Savannah instituted a similar ordinance in 2011, and even some critics of that law were convinced as businesses saw no ill effects, according to local media reports.

At Moondogs, a Buckhead Village bar that is among several in the area that still allow smoking, owner Mike Taylor welcomed the idea of a ban.

“We stopped selling cigarettes at the bar in January of 2018, and we would welcome a healthier environment for our customers,” said Taylor. “If it’s a citywide ban, I don’t think it will really affect our business at all.”

Red Door Tavern, a bar on Buckhead’s Roswell Road, currently allows smoking but has banned it in a new arcade game area. Owner Steve Shamatta said a citywide smoking ban might upset some customers and temporarily effect his business, but it’s a move he would support.

“As a non-smoker and a bar owner, I understand the risks of being in a smoke-filled bar, but I have consciously made the decision to work and socialize in this environment,” said Shamatta. “With that being said, as I’ve become used to it, I’m also ready for the change. As it would be an adjustment for my customers, I would be in favor of the city of Atlanta going non-smoking.”

The proposed Atlanta ordinance would fine the owners or operators of spaces for violations: $100 for a first violation and $200 for each additional offense within one year. The ordinance would still have some exemptions. Some carry over from the existing state law, including for retail tobacco stores and for businesses located within private homes that are not daycares or healthcare-related. Businesses can have outdoor, open smoking areas.

Westmorland also inserted exemptions for cigar bars and hookah bars, which he says was “important to me.”

“I’m not trying to put people out of business,” Westmoreland said, adding that “if you’ve made a conscious decision to go to a place whose entire reason for existence is cigars, that’s your choice.”

Perimeter Center smoking laws

The current state law allows cities to pass even tighter smoking restrictions, as Savannah did and Atlanta is now considering. Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs each have local smoking restrictions on the books, with varying contents, none of which are as tough as what Atlanta proposes.

In the Perimeter Center area, Dunwoody has the tightest restriction on smoking in private businesses, with only a handful of exemptions largely borrowed from the state law, as well as adult “cabarets” and movie theaters – none of which exist in the city today – and “freestanding bars,” meaning ones that serve little or no food. The code bans smoking in city recreational facilities as well.

Dunwoody city spokesperson Jennifer Leslie Boettcher said officials are unaware of any local bar or restaurant that allows smoking and considers it banned in practice.

“There has been no discussion about Dunwoody’s smoking rules,” she said. “This is not an issue that’s come up here anytime recently.”

Brookhaven’s smoking code also bans lighting up in public buildings and parks, and largely mirrors the state exemptions for private businesses, including for bars and restaurants that bar people under 18.

“I checked around and at the moment I am not aware of any current discussions to amend the ordinance,” said Brookhaven city spokesperson Burke Brennan.

Sandy Springs bans any form of smoking in city buildings and parks, but leaves regulation of smoking in private businesses entirely up to state law.

“There are no discussions at this time regarding changes in city policy,” said Sandy Springs city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.

The final legislation?

Freeman of the American Cancer Society’s advocacy affiliate says that Atlanta and Georgia have long been behind the curve on smoking restrictions for political and industry lobbying reasons. The 2005 state law, he says, “took a while to get because we were a tobacco-growing state, quite honestly … Tobacco companies have a stronghold [in] Southern states.” The law passed at the same time Brown & Williamson was shutting down a massive cigarette-making plant in Macon.

In recent years, a tighter Atlanta ban has been proposed by Smoke-Free Atlanta, a coalition of such organizations as the Atlanta-headquartered American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association. Westmoreland said those groups began meeting with City Council members about a year ago, leading to work in December on drafting the proposed ordinance.

Freeman said the ordinance is based on model legislation written by Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a California-based lobbying organization. Westmoreland asked for various changes to it before its submittal.

Is this the final smoking ban tweak that Atlanta will need? Freeman said it’s not perfect, but will do.

“If it passes as it is, I think we’ll be happy,” he said, even if the cigar bar exemption isn’t ideal. “I would much rather they not be there [in the exemptions], but sometimes we don’t always get what we want.”

Atlanta has been targeted by advocates because it’s a big example for other cities to follow – though Freeman could cite parts of the smoking ordinances in Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs off the top of his head.

Outdoor smoking remains the final frontier, and Westmoreland and Freeman both said it would be hard to enforce a total public-smoking ban.

“I think there would be a legal challenge to trying to ban it outdoors, period,” said Westmoreland.

Freeman said that tighter laws can do away with some outdoor smoking in practice and reinforce its increasing social unacceptably. As an example, he noted the prohibition on smoking near doorways as effectively banning it on large sections of urban sidewalks.

“It’s tough to enforce [an outdoor ban], but you do make it less acceptable in society to do that and it does help curtail it,” Freeman said.

An emerging trend, Freeman said, is large corporations barring employees from smoking even in their private lives. He said one major corporation, which he declined to name, has a job application asking about tobacco use within the past six months because the company may decline to hire due to a presumption the worker would be more likely to have sick days and possibly expose coworkers to second- or third-hand smoke.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Red Door Tavern.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.