Healthy Augusta steering committee member the Rev. Jeff Flowers is sending out a letter this week to fellow clergy urging them to speak out this Sunday or the following Sunday about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke and the need for stronger protections for workers.
“We’re just asking them, if it feels right to them, that they might mention it this weekend and, if not, maybe next weekend,” he said. “Or maybe they could put something in a congregational bulletin, a newsletter, if they feel like they support the idea of trying to limit secondhand smoke.”
The letter will include information on the dangers of secondhand smoke, Flowers said. The fact that it is Easter this weekend for most Christians makes it an opportune time to ask, he said.
“We hope that some will do it this Sunday, since it will be a very busy Sunday,” Flowers said.
In 2005, Georgia adopted a statewide ban on smoking except for establishments where no one younger than 18 is admitted, which left it open for many bars. The Augusta Commission has voted down an ordinance to extend that to all workplaces, including bars, each of the last two years, with the last attempt failing about six months ago. But advocates say they hope a renewed local effort by Healthy Augusta, with the aid of those willing congregations, will make the difference this time around.
“What we hope is that the voice of the community is going to be included,” said Dr. Selina Smith, the director of the Institute of Public and Preventive Health at GRU and a facilitator of Healthy Augusta. The new effort is trying to clear up some misconceptions about the previous push, she said.
“What I was told was that many folks did not feel that this was a local issue,” Smith said. “We’re trying to make sure that our legislators realize that this is very local, that secondhand smoke affects the people that vote.”
The perception that it was a push by outside groups to get the ordinance passed hurt the efforts, said Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson, who has sponsored the effort the last two years. That should not be an issue this time, he said.
“All in all, I think that is going to be the difference-maker in this one, that it is a local organization who is promoting this, who is pushing this, who is advocating for it,” Johnson said.
Another misconception was the ordinance was an attempt to ban smoking, which it is not, Flowers said.
“It’s not asking anyone to quit smoking,” he said. “It is just saying if you are going to smoke, if you can move outside of the workplace, that protects the air for the workers.”
The ordinance has faced staunch opposition from commission members who view it as an infringement on the rights of business owners to choose whether to allow smoking. Smith said it is also a public health issue and the two can coexist.
“Is there a way we can save lives and preserve the business owner’s right to make money? I think there is a way to do it,” she said. “I think simply by removing the smoke, not getting rid of smokers, not being anti-smoking, just saying, ‘Can you step away from this enclosed area for just a moment to smoke your cigarettes?’ ”
Johnson said he is planning to bring it up for discussion at the May 6 meeting and hopes he can flip a couple of the six commissioners who voted it down last time without much discussion.
“I just think people needed more dialogue, more time to digest what it really mean(s),” he said.