Stricter Smoking Ordinance Receives Mixed Reactions
Last Tuesday, after the Augusta Commission voted 6-4 in favor of a new ordinance banning smoking inside Richmond County bars (along with most other enclosed public workspaces), scores of local citizens poured out of the back doors of the forum either to celebrate a victory with their colleagues or reflect on the disheartening loss.
One side of the room had been filled with local business owners—many of them wearing stickers labeled “Butt Out of My Business”—who came out in opposition of an ordinance they believed would infringe upon their basic rights as business owners. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in town that had become non-smoking establishments over the years, they thought, giving non-smokers a plethora of dining and entertainment options. Why couldn’t the rest be left to do business as they pleased?
“This is going into our worst time of year, too,” said Clint Martin, owner of Bar West in west Augusta. “The summertime in Augusta is the slowest time of the year for bars and nightclubs in Augusta. So it’s a time where I think it would really, really hurt Augusta, and there’s no need for it. There’s a lot of different non-smoking options.”
Bar West has been a non-smoking bar since it opened in 2011, but Martin believes that’s a decision that should be up to bar owners. He arrived at that conclusion for a few reasons, but mainly due to a strong belief in business owners’ right to choose and the disproportionate effects and complications he believes the law will cause for smoking bars.
“They’re basically incentivizing people to go out and drink in their cars, not frequent the bars and loiter outside,” Martin said. “It’s never enough. Once they get this passed, they’ll be back in the next five to ten years. They’ll be back with something else. It’s disgusting in my opinion. To think that you have grown adults that are going to tell other grown adults what they can and cannot do with their lives. It’s sickening. It’s un-American.”
The debate is nothing new and has been an ongoing dialogue in Augusta for several years as cities across the country pass similar smoking bans (including statewide bans in more than half the states in the U.S.), including one in Savannah that went into effect in 2011. The issue had been voted on by the Augusta Commission before but failed to pass. This time, the ban passed with one notable change being made to the proposed ordinance: the previous restriction that would have required patrons to smoke at least ten feet away from a bar was changed to a “reasonable distance.”
That change will allow Martin to fully utilize Bar West’s patio as an outlet for smokers, although he’s still worried about the loitering issue.
For Breatheasy Augusta, a coalition that has spent years trying to pass a comprehensive smoke-free ordinance in Augusta, the decision validates years of hard work and a compromise that, in the minds of its proponents, should never have been a big deal in the first place.
“We’re not saying you can’t smoke,” said Jennifer Anderson, a respiratory therapist and volunteer for Breatheasy Augusta. “We just want you to go outside, have a cigarette, and come back in.”
Anderson’s path to her current profession began with her health issues as a “very sickly” child in a home where her father consistently smoked. She missed most of the sixth grade because of a lung infection and regularly had difficulty breathing.
“Nobody needed to tell my mother that that was bad,” Anderson said. “But you know, it’s legal. It must not be too bad!”
For Anderson, the issue of “choice” isn’t so cut and dry when it comes to a substance that inevitably affects the people around it.
“What we really don’t take into consideration is people who have to work in it every night,” Anderson said. “I think what’s going to really come out of this ordinance is public education.”
Just days before the last week’s commission vote, former Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson addressed a letter to Hardie Davis and the Augusta Commission, encouraging them to pass the ordinance.
“We took this action to protect the health of our citizens,” the letter reads. “The scientific evidence was clear about the dangers of smoking. Also, we took into account that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. The health risks of secondhand smoke are documented and include heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, and other respiratory infections. Our non-smoking citizens who were patrons or worked in smoked filled environments were at-risk of suffering from smoke related illnesses.”
“There was strong opposition from bar owners and some restaurant managers expressing a fear that passage of the ordinance would hurt their bottom-line. We respected their opinion, but we felt that our citizens would adjust to the change. A Georgia Department of Public Health study in 2013 concluded that Savannah’s Smoke-Free Ordinance had ‘no impact on taxable sales revenue for bars and full-service restaurants in Chatham County after adjusting for time, seasonality, unemployment rate, and overall sales in all other sectors.’”
For one Savannah-area bar owner, Johnson’s idea that bar owners would adjust the ordinance proved correct. Leslie Schadler, owner of the Jukebox Bar and Grille in Richmond Hill, a city in the Savannah metro area, transitioned the bar into a non-smoking institution in 2017 (Jukebox Bar and Grille was grandfathered into the new law in 2011).
Initially, Jukebox saw a 30 percent drop in sales, a big hit that not all Savannah-area bars survived. But since then, less than a year after switching to non-smoking, Schadler has seen a 20-25 percent recovery. Jukebox Bar and Grille is now close to being on par with its sales when patrons were still allowed to smoke inside.
I asked Schadler what caused her to make the change when she didn’t have to.
“Overall cleanliness, overall cost,” Schadler said. “It costs more to keep things clean, it does. It affects who comes in. It was a business decision based on a number of factors, and it wasn’t because I was concerned about everyone’s health.”
Josh Williamson, owner of Firehouse Bar downtown (one of a few bars on Broad Street that allows smoking), said he and his employees are looking forward to working in a cleaner environment starting Jan. 1.
“As I’ve gotten a little older and more health conscious, I don’t like being in the smoky environment anymore,” Williamson said, adding that some of his employees are also looking forward to the new ordinance kicking in. “I enjoy going to bars in other cities where it’s not a factor…I think we were kind of behind the times in getting this done.”
Others weren’t so thrilled, including owners of vape shops and hookah lounges.
“We were pretty much completely blindsided by the whole situation,” said Ashel Said, co-owner of Sharifa’s Hookah Bar and Lounge.
Said and Stacey Mertins, owner of vape shop Vapor Hut, are confused as to why they were included in the non-smoking ordinance, even if they are grandfathered in. Mertins said Vapor Hut is a retailer according to its business license.
“We don’t have a smoking license or a liquor license, so how are we classified as a bar?” Mertins asked. “That was our problem with the whole scenario. Why are we being lumped into this group?”
Some business owners, including Mertins and Said, are determined to fight the new ordinance. Only the passage of time will reveal whether some businesses take a significant financial hit. Williamson doesn’t think there will be many economic changes for bars at all. If anything, it’s a breath of fresh air.
“I think after a little while, it’s just going to be business as usual,” Williamson said.
Contact Witt Wells at (901) 319-8877 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.