Group hits roadblock on tougher smoking ordinance

It was one step forward, two steps back Tuesday in the quest for a tougher smoking ordinance in Augusta, but health advocates vowed to push on.

 

East Central Health District Director Ketty Gonzalez made a five-minute presentation to the Augusta Commission on the dangers of secondhand smoke in requesting a total ban on smoking in public places, only to be told afterward that the matter needs to go through the commission's committee system.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who is also a member of the Richmond County Board of Health, which is backing the increased ban, told Gonzalez she should go Monday to the Public Service Committee.

Augusta is under a statewide smoking law passed in 2005 that generally bans smoking in public places but allows exemptions for bars and restaurants that do not serve anyone younger than 18.

Since 2005, several Georgia communities have enacted stricter standards. Savannah recently joined Buena Vista and Morrow in banning smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars, according to Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights.

Athens-Clarke County is one of a handful of others that ban smoking in restaurants and bars, while Columbia County is among several that ban smoking from workplaces and restaurants, according to the group.

Columbia County makes an exception for outdoor dining facilities that have a roof but are open on three sides, private clubs, and military clubs and posts.

Even with the increased bans, smoking kills 443,000 people a year, including 49,000 from secondhand smoke, Gonzalez said.

Working an eight-hour shift in a smoky place could be as harmful for a nonsmoker as smoking 11/2 packs of cigarettes, she said.

"All workers deserve equal protection," Gonzalez said. "We really need it in Richmond County."

Commissioner Bill Lockett questioned whether a ban would be effective.

"We can't enforce code violations," he said. "How are we going to enforce a smoking ban?"

The model ordinance given in a packet to commissioners before the meeting allows for a fine of $50 for a smoker and fines for up to $500 for businesses that repeatedly violate the ban.

Going through committee is a pretty typical response for local governments, said Lora Scarlet Hawk, the Breathe Easy Coalition manager for the American Cancer Society, who is helping local groups push for the ban.

"The easiest way to kill this piece of legislation is to send it to committee," she said. "The committee is also the place in which the legislative process is most at work. That's where the commission will actually really study the model ordinance and decide what parts of it fit the community and what parts do not.

"This actually gives us time to meet with the commission and hopefully to make our case and answer their questions."

Gonzalez said she would be back.

"We'll keep fighting,' she said.