A five-month delay, some revision and a public hearing didn’t change the debate over proposed tighter smoking rules in Macon. The open debate, held before about 100 onlookers in City Council chambers Thursday evening, came down to health vs. freedom — or at least that’s how opposing sides framed their own positions.
Only half a dozen of the council’s 15 members were on hand to hear the discussion. After a previous version of a smoking ordinance drew a mayoral veto in May, council members promised a public hearing before submitting a revised version.
The proposed ordinance, which has not yet been sent to a council committee for discussion, essentially would ban smoking in all bars and restaurants. It loosens a few restrictions from the earlier version, such as allowing smoking Virginia cigarettes in public parks except near playgrounds and crowded seating areas.
Most of Thursday’s debate centered on the bar and restaurant restriction. Council President Pro Tempore Larry Schlesinger, presiding over the hearing, began with a presentation from Greg
Dent, president of Community Health Works, which is sponsoring a Breathe Easy Macon campaign; and Lora Hawk, the group’s campaign manager.
Dent said a survey conducted in March found that 70 percent of local residents favor a law against smoking in establishments that serve the public.
“We were very, very surprised by the survey results,” he said. “To be honest with you, we didn’t expect it to come back so high in favor of smoking restrictions.”
Hawk said the proposed ordinance is similar to those already in force in Athens and Savannah, and many other cities nationwide. “Numerous studies” show those rules have no negative impact on business, and enforcement is rarely a problem, she said.
“The current proposal makes all workplaces smoke-free,” including private clubs, Hawk said. “It doesn’t prohibit smoking, it just asks them to step outside.”
She urged its passage countywide, not just in Macon.
Sam Hart, chairman of the Bibb County Commission — and a Community Health Works board member — listened from the back of the room. He didn’t speak at the time, but he later commented that the county will wait and see how the ordinance fares in the city before considering it in the county.
“OK, now it’s your turn,” Schlesinger said, turning to the crowd.
Downtown Grill owner Richie Jones asked for an exception for cigar bars, such as the one he operates there. He’s got money tied up in the humidor and ventilation system and has out-of-town customers who visit specifically to relax there, he said.
David Corr, former Libertarian candidate for City Council, said he’s a lifelong nonsmoker and has lost his mother and friends to smoking. But he opposes the ordinance on civil liberties grounds.
“Using this logic, you could ban people from eating more than one Big Mac a week,” he said, comparing smoking rules to a Nazi “police state.”
Deryl Dantzler, a professor at Mercer University’s law school, said she wouldn’t offer her opinion on the ordinance as a whole — but she asked for electronic cigarettes to be exempted. They don’t emit smoke but deliver a dose of nicotine.
She said she smoked for more than 50 years and couldn’t quit until she found e-cigarettes.
“If we’re concerned about smoke, we should also be concerned about the people who are trying to quit smoking,” Dantzler said. When she’d previously asked why e-cigarettes were not exempt, she was just told it was an “enforcement issue” because they resemble real cigarettes, she said. Dantzler held up several different e-cigarettes to show that many don’t look like cigarettes at all.
Element nightclub owner Phillip Sinclair and Fowl Play sports bar owner Joey Burtner criticized the survey, disputing its methods. Burtner said such a major issue should be decided by public referendum, not City Council.
David Cousino, the former Republican candidate for mayor who plans a write-in campaign this year, angrily denounced Community Health Works. He asked how much the group was putting into the anti-smoking campaign and asked where that money comes from.
Community Health Works representatives made no response at the time. Asked later, Dent said the group’s financial information is posted on its website.
The IRS Form 990 for 2010 shows $1.9 million in “contributions and grants,” but individual contributors are not listed. The audit for the same year, also posted on its site, lists $62,000 in unspecified direct donations and $549,000 in “other contributed support,” but the bulk of Community Health Works’ funding comes from other health-related agencies including the Georgia Cancer Coalition and the state Department of Community Health.
Victor Stanley, a smoker and owner of the Hummingbird nightclub, said his name “sort of got put on the top of the banner for both sides.”
He supports a smoking ordinance — but not right now, he said. Athens can afford it because its bars and restaurants have enough traffic to offset any loss, but Macon businesses struggle to draw crowds, Stanley said.
“You can’t ask us to lose what little business we have right now,” he said. “Let’s get that problem fixed, and the smoking ordinance will take care of itself.”