Advocates, opponents argue merits of tighter Augusta smoking ban before hearing

Highlander Pub customers smoke in the North Augusta bar. Businesses like the Highlander could lose their smoking clientle if the city council votes to ban smoking in public areas, including restaurants and bars.

Proponents of a potentially tougher smoking ban in Augusta are encouraged by its close resemblance to model legislation that should make enforcement easier, but an opponent says it is a “slippery slope” that will lead to an erosion of rights.

A public hearing on the draft ordinance will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday in the Augusta Commission Chambers. Another will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 17 at Julian Smith Casino.

Augusta is currently operating under state law that bans smoking in most public places but includes some exemptions, such as bars and restaurants that do not admit anyone under age 18. The draft ordinance is nearly identical to the model legislation proposed by smoke-free advocates and bans smoking in virtually every public space, including bars, playgrounds, outdoor construction sites and ATM lines. Advocates say that it is important to include all of these places.

“Really, it is the exemptions that make ordinances like these more challenging for enforcement so, the stronger the ordinance, the more comprehensive it is, the easier it is to enforce,” said Lora Scarlet Hawk, the Breathe Easy Coalition Manager for the American Cancer Society, which is helping push the tougher standards.

Under the draft ordinance, the city administrator or his designee and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office would enforce the ban.

While some might say second-hand smoke in an outdoor setting such as a playground is harmless, that is not the case, said Sadie Stockton, the chronic disease prevention/health promotion program coordinator for East Central Health District.

“Especially if you have an asthmatic child or a child with respiratory problems because second-hand smoke is a trigger factor for asthma,” she said.

Opponents say the ban is an overreach by the government.

“Legislated smoking bans of any kind take away the rights of individuals and business owners to make their own decisions,” said Tony Tortorici, a spokesman for the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association. “And that’s important because you start down that slippery slope, and it isn’t long before more complicated issues develop – other rights being taken away from individuals.”

He said “study after study” shows an economic harm from smoking bans, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited a number of advantages for smoke-free businesses, from lower insurance and maintenance costs to increased productivity. Tortorici implied the CDC was biased.

“Everybody is biased,” he said. “Everybody has an agenda. Our agenda is freedom of choice.”

Hawk said she can sympathize with businesses that have to adjust to meet new requirements. But businesses already have to comply with regulations to ensure better public health, such as serving or storing food at certain temperatures. A smoking ban extends that to not just patrons, but the employees of those places where they might currently face hours of smoke per shift.

“And that’s harmful for them,” Hawk said. “I’m just trying to provide all workers with the aspect of being able to have a smoke-free environment. It’s something I get to enjoy in my work environment. I hope to provide that for everybody.”

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