The two sides squared off, with nine bar owners, patrons and industry representatives opposed to the ban tucked into one corner of the Augusta Commission chamber while about 25 health advocates and ban supporters filled the adjacent center aisle. The Public Services Committee seemed split, with chair Corey Johnson offering suggestions for the ban and Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle arguing on behalf of the property rights of owners to allow smoking.
General counsel Andrew MacKenzie will bring back the draft legislation, with optional language in some areas, to the committee meeting Jan. 30. But Bowles said it has been the same four commissioners involved so far and their positions are clear, so it would be better to send the proposed ordinance to the full commission.
With those six commissioners, “we have no idea where they stand,” Bowles said. “We could be wasting everybody’s time here” if there is already majority support.
Drawing on commissioner comments and sentiments from previous public hearings, MacKenzie will present optional language on e-cigarettes, the potential to smoke on city-owned grounds if the building is leased for an event and banning smoking in a car where children are present. Johnson had asked to have the cars added “because of the fact that those minors do not have a voice” concerning smoking in the car, he said. Johnson also said e-cigarettes appeared to be different than regular cigarettes because of their output.
“It’s more of a vapor versus a smoke,” he said.
But no one really knows what those devices are putting out and the city should be cautious about allowing them until more is known, said Sarah Balog, the government relations director for the American Heart Association.
“The science is still out on that,” she said.
For those opposed to the ban, the issue is a fundamental one.
Cigarettes are legal and current law allows smoking in adult-only places such as bars, said Pino G. Venetico, the president of the Independent Restaurant & Bar Association of Georgia.
“As a certain age, you have to have the liberty to make your own choices,” he said.
Balog said the ban won’t take away the right to smoke but instead require smokers to accommodate smoke-free indoor air for those who don’t smoke and employees of those places.
“We’re merely asking smokers to step outside,” she said.
Had she known that a ban was possible, Felecia Marcum said she would not have paid $5,000 to renew the liquor license for Frank’s Bar in Hephzibah. If bars are included in the smoke-free ordinance, “we might as well close,” she said.
But plenty of states, cities and counties surrounding Augusta have banned smoking in bars and those places “are doing just fine,” said Eric Bailey, of the American Cancer Society.