The Smoke That Drove Old Dixie Down
States with the toughest smoking bans huddle in the Northeast the way smokers huddle outside entrances of office buildings. But this year smoking bans are being considered in the unlikeliest of places -- on Tobacco Road.
In one of its last acts of the 2005 session, the Georgia General Assembly on March 31 approved a bill that bans smoking in most indoor workplaces. The bill, which exempts bars and restaurants that only serve adults, is considerably weaker than a Senate version, but is still a victory for anti-tobacco groups.
"I've seen so many deaths caused by tobacco and so much damage -- emphysema, pulmonary disease. We are trying to protect the children from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke," said Georgia Sen. Don Thomas (R), a family physician who introduced the ban.
If signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), Georgia would be the 12th state with a statewide ban. Seven states have comprehensive indoor bans (California, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and, as of March 1, Rhode Island), and four states ban smoking indoors everywhere except bars (Florida, Utah, Idaho and Vermont). At least 30 states have considered some type of indoor smoking ban this session, according to the California-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR).
"The fact that Georgia even is to this level ... (is) remarkable, considering they're a tobacco-producing state. It's changed a lot of people's perceptions about the type of state that addresses these issues," said Bronson Frick, ANR associate director.
South Carolina, which like Georgia is a tobacco state, saw a stringent smoke-free bill introduced in the Legislature in late March. North Carolina, the country's largest tobacco producer, banned smoking within the Senate chambers in January and is considering banning it in prisons, stadiums and restaurants. Restaurant ban sponsor Rep. Hugh Holliman (D), a survivor of lung cancer that his doctor said was caused by second-hand smoke, said e-mails he's received run about 20-to-1 in favor of the bill.
Smoking bans also are gaining a foothold in other states that had previously been their graveyards. Last month the North Dakota House, which has stopped most anti-smoking bills for more than a decade, approved a workplace ban. A restaurant ban also recently cleared an Arkansas House committee after failures in past sessions.
But bills have still died in several states. An Indiana measure went from a sweeping ban to merely a requirement that restaurants have no-smoking sections.
Some legislators are introducing bills that would prohibit municipalities from enacting smoking bans. These are a blow to anti-smoking activists because municipal bans often spur legislators to propose a statewide ban. Currently 23 states have preemption laws, eight are considering them and five have bills to repeal them.
Smokers' rights groups say bans erode the rights of business owners. "A restaurant or bar is private property, and they have the right to determine whether or not they permit a legal activity on their premises," said Wanda Hamilton, a spokeswoman for FORCES International, an organization that opposes legislative smoking bans.
Opponents also argue that smoking bans hurt businesses like Sloppy Joe's, a Florida Key West institution that claims to be Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar. Sloppy Joe's takes in 17 percent of its revenue from food sales, but in Florida smoking is only permitted in bars where no more than 10 percent of revenue comes from food.
The result: a bill that would raise that standard to no more than 20 percent, but only for businesses inside a building on the National Register of Historic Places -- which Sloppy Joe's happens to be.
The Georgia Restaurant Association has traditionally opposed smoking bans, "but [county] and local governments have taken a different path, and that's created a lot of inequities," said executive director Ron Wolf. So the group now backs a statewide ban to counter imbalances. Wolf said in some counties a restaurant on one side of the street can allow smoking, while one on the other cannot.
Smoking ban advocates maintain they don't necessarily harm an economy. New York City went smoke-free in March 2003, and a report the city released a year later found that tax receipts from April 2003 to January 2004 actually increased 8.7 percent.