Bars and parks in most of DeKalb County could become no-smoking areas under an extraordinarily strict ordinance passed Tuesday that could become law by year's end. Unincorporated DeKalb already had smoking restrictions tougher than the statewide ban that took effect last year. In addition to outlawing cigarettes in parks, the measure removes exemptions for bars and adult entertainment venues. The DeKalb County Commission passed the ordinance 6-1, and it now goes to Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones.
"It's the most comprehensive clean indoor air act in Georgia," said Commissioner Burrell Ellis, the bill's sponsor. Ellis also sponsored the county's existing prohibitions, which banned smoking in restaurants and most other public places when it took effect in 2003.
Anti-smoking groups applauded the new restrictions. Eric Bailey, a manager with the American Cancer Society, said his group had met with Ellis over the past year in hopes of passing legislation that promised "100 percent" smoke-free air. He said the state prohibition that exempts bars is inadequate because it doesn't protect bar workers.
"There should be no exemptions," Bailey said.
Not so fast, Jones said.
He has until Nov. 3 to issue a veto, and he hinted Tuesday evening that he was contemplating one.
Jones said the legislation was "radical" because it applied to so many places, including county-owned parking lots. That could raise enforcement issues, he said. "I'm not going to have my police department to focus on patting down people in the parking lot who are smoking. There are more serious things" for them to do, he said. He said there are uncertainties in the law, like whether it applies to public rights of way at the end of driveways.
County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, who cast the lone vote in opposition, also cited enforcement as a concern.
The restrictions wouldn't apply to the cities in DeKalb, only the unincorporated areas.
The law will take effect 60 days after Jones approves it, if he chooses to do so.
The legislation would increase the fine. Currently, a first offense nets a maximum fine of $50. Under the new legislation, someone caught violating the smoking law could be fined $500 and would face a minimum fine of $100.
The only public places in DeKalb where the county won't ban smoking if this new prohibition becomes law are tobacco stores, property owned by other governments and rooms designated for smoking in hotels and motels. And, of course, people will still be allowed to smoke at home and in their cars.
Even if DeKalb doesn't approve these latest revisions, it will still be among two dozen jurisdictions with smoking prohibitions that exceed the state's. Smoking in restaurants is illegal in the county, but under state law there is an exemption for restaurants that maintain a separate smoking room with an independent ventilation system.
When Ron Wolf, an opponent of smoking bans, was told of DeKalb's latest effort, he said it wasn't possible for the county to be any stricter than it already was. "They already have one of the strictest laws in the state," said Wolf, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. His response after he heard the details of the latest desired crackdown: "Wow, they really did go all out, didn't they."
Wolf said businesses should get to choose whether to allow smoking on their premises, and he said if there must be a ban it should be consistent statewide, so establishments aren't placed at a disadvantage with competitors in more lenient jurisdictions.
But one critical restaurant and bar owner in DeKalb County shrugged off the latest proposal.
Aaron Melton, owner of the Melton's App & Tap on North Decatur Road, said the county's first foray into anti-smoking legislation nearly four years ago cost him dearly, but said his business adapted and is largely immune to anti-smoking legislation now.
"For me, the damage
has already been done," said Melton, who estimates he lost $3,000
a week in revenue during the first year of DeKalb's smoking ban.
During that time, his smoking clientele drank at Decatur bars instead -- before that city banned smoking, too, he said. Melton said the loss of revenue forced him to close a new App & Tap in Decatur that wasn't yet on its feet. He also re-wrote the menu to attract more families looking for meals.
Melton said he still gets a
few smokers, but most either stay home or go elsewhere, where enforcement isn't an issue.
"Some of them go to bars that will look the other way," he said.
DeKalb snuffs out smokers' options