Some Downtown Augusta bars opt for nonsmoking policy



Plumes of thick, hazy cigarette smoke are a thing of the past at Joe’s Underground Cafe.

Owner Jeremy LaFontaine said customers complained about smoke trapped under the cafe’s low ceiling. Eyes burned and breathing was sometimes difficult.

Joe’s Underground banned smoking inside the bar and cafe starting Jan. 7, one of at least two downtown Augusta bars to voluntarily prohibit cigarette smoking in recent months.

In February 2012, the Augusta Commission voted down a proposed ordinance banning smoking in all public places and outdoor work sites. The city is operating under state law, which bans smoking in public places where a child could be present but allows it in bars that do not admit anyone younger than 18.

CoCo Rubio was against the proposed ordinance, but recently prohibited smoking in Sky City, a live music venue he owns on Broad Street. Still, Rubio said the decision to allow or prohibit smoking should be left to the establishment, not the government.

Rubio has no plans to limit smoking inside Soul Bar, a nightclub he owns on Broad Street. Potential customers at Sky City, however, said they stayed away from the music shows because they didn’t want exposure to smoke.

“The response has been really positive. We’re happy with the move we’ve made,” he said. “You go to Athens, Atlanta, Savannah, really any city nowadays, and no live music venue allows smoking anymore.”

In the month since Sky City went smoke free, Rubio said he gained customers rather than lost business. Smokers still come for the music, and step outside the front door for a cigarette.

The decision was also made for musicians, who Rubio said do not want smoke to hurt their voices. LaFontaine at Joe’s Underground said he had some bands that would not book to play at the cafe because of smoke.

Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson, who supported last year’s ordinance, said it could be several more months before another ordinance proposing a smoking ban comes before the commission. There was no mandatory waiting period after the ordinance was voted down, but an alliance called Breatheasy Augusta is focusing on public outreach and education.

Eric Bailey, government relations director for American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, said bars that voluntarily prohibit smoking are sending a positive message that business is not adversely affected.

“It dispels the myth that it will hurt the bottom line,” Bailey said. “If that was the case, I don’t think they would be opting for it.”

Breatheasy Augusta will continue its advertising campaign and take time to educate new city commissioners before introducing a proposal, Bailey said.

Rubio and LaFontaine said they think it’s just a matter of time before a smoking ban is instituted.

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