Originally created 06/26/04

City divides over smoking ban idea



ATHENS, Ga. - Restaurant and bar owners in this bustling college city are facing the probability that a proposed smoking ban will become law and take a portion of their business with it.

But they aren't going down without a fight.

Members of the Athens Restaurant and Bar Association huddled in the upstairs banquet room of a downtown restaurant this week to set out a public relations strategy, after a surprise development late last week made it clear that the ban is likely.

After more than a year of discussing a range of possible restrictions, Athens-Clarke County commissioners agreed June 17 to the strictest law yet, one that would ban smoking indoors, on patios and porches, and 20 feet from the door of any business.

They'll vote on the issue July 6, leaving only two weeks - including a holiday weekend - for restaurant and bar owners to get out the message they say has been lost in the yearlong debate.

Health advocates and smoke-bothered residents have argued effectively in public hearings that the physical harm of smoking outweighs the financial harm of a smoking ban.

But restaurant and bar owners say they haven't stressed all the negative aspects of a ban.

"The government has not realized the value of what we are doing," said Jamey Loftin, who owns three Locos Deli and Pub restaurants in Athens. "It's not about whether it's fair across the board or smoking is bad or good. It's about the fact that government shouldn't try to control this."

Mr. Loftin didn't get involved in the debate earlier, he said, but has grown more and more frustrated over the past few weeks.

He was the first to volunteer cash for an advertising campaign, though the challenge brought offers from a dozen downtown restaurant owners.

While many downtown bar and restaurant owners complain about the proposed ban, the ones who scream the loudest are the owners of upscale restaurants with large bars.