There is no doubt left that second hand smoke is dangerous to your health.
As a result, many organizations and individuals have worked diligently on several fronts to get state legislatures and local governments to pass smoke-free laws and ordinances.
There is no getting around the fact that many of us have come to expect smoke-free environments where we work, where we shop and when we go out to eat.
So what happens when there is blatant violation of the law?
My wife and I found out this past weekend. The answer, at least in Georgia: not much.
So, here we were this past Saturday—my wife and me—walking through our neighborhood mall. We had just spent most of our day at a medical organization meeting, and decided to stop by to pick up a couple of things on the way home.
Then we went into one of the mall’s restaurants for an adult beverage and some time to just relax, talk, and basically take a break.
The place of our choosing was one of those trendy, upscale places that attract people much younger than we are. You probably know the type of restaurant—spare furniture, lighting that is just right, servers dressed in t-shirts that say “eat” or “drink” on the front and “up” on the back.
And then we smelled it—the cigarette smoke. We chose a table near the bar, but it was pretty obvious someone nearby was smoking a cigarette. And, in our home state of Georgia, that is supposed to be a no-no.
If that wasn’t enough, it was what we learned as the afternoon turned into evening that surprised us both.
In July 2005, Georgia enacted a no-smoking law for public restaurants and bars that do not limit their clientele to people 18 and over. By most accounts, the law has been successful and restaurant owners and patrons have obeyed. I have even heard comments from restaurant owners and managers that their business increased after implementation of the law.
This place we went to Saturday serves adults, young adults and children, so there shouldn’t be anyone smoking on the premises.
I spotted the offender, and told our server that we were going to move further away to try to get away from the noxious odor. When we sat down at the bar for our beverage, I commented to the bartender that smoking in public restaurants in Atlanta and Georgia was illegal.
“Not in the bar,” he replied. Only in the restaurant. People smoke in the bar area all the time, we were advised.
Wrong. In Georgia, no smoking means no smoking in a public restaurant or bar except if they ban customers and workers under the age of 18.
And then the smoker walked over our way in search of a match for her next cigarette. Fortunately, she didn’t take a seat next to us. The servers complied with her request.
It’s what happened next that was the surprise for us.
We finished our beverage, walked into the mall, and decided to get a glass of wine at a wine bar across the hall from our first venue. Maybe the atmosphere there would be more favorable.
We asked the servers there whether they permitted smoking, and there was a resounding “no.” They advised us that it was clearly illegal to smoke in a restaurant or bar, and the most affirmative confirmation came from the young lady who served us our glass of wine—who admitted that she was a smoker.
And who should be sitting just a couple of seats down the way from us, but a server from restaurant #1, easily identified by her trendy “drink up” T-shirt.
She promptly told us that smoking was commonplace in the other restaurant. In fact, she said, on no less than seven or eight times customers had called the police to complain about people smoking in the bar and restaurant.
According to our new-found informant—who told us that the smoke actually had caused her difficulty with her allergies—when they arrived, the police chastised the complainers, telling them that they had more important things to do, like fight crime, and then promptly exited without issuing a citation.
Well, so much for non-smoking laws if they aren’t going to be enforced.
I subsequently contacted a colleague from our South Atlantic Division of the American Cancer Society, who is located in Georgia. She supplied me with information from our state government that was provided to restaurants in 2005 when the law went into effect. And maybe that explained some of the problem with enforcement.
First, I confirmed that I was correct in my interpretation of the law. The restaurant/bar should not allow smoking on their premises.
In addition, according to the law, they aren’t supposed to provide any ashtrays for smokers. The words from the “Georgia Smokefree Air Act of 2005: A Guide for Business Owners and Employers” says: “The owner, operator, manager or other person in control of the space must remove all ashtrays from any area where smoking is not allowed.”
The penalties for violating the law? “A person smoking in violation of the law will be guilty of a misdemeanor and fined not less than $100 and not more than $500.”
The Guide concludes, for workplaces that serve customers, that they should, “Advise staff to take reasonable steps toward implementation but to avoid confrontations that may result in physical harm.”
Conspicuously absent from the document is information on who to call for enforcement when there is a problem. Nada, nothing. Maybe 1-800-SMOKEBUSTERS could help.
In another document my colleague supplied me, which was a summary of the original legislation, it turns out that the State Department of Human Resources and the county boards of health “and their duly authorized agents are authorized to enforce compliance with this law and the rules and regulations.”
I can’t say that I have seen the Department of Human Resources police in my neighborhood recently, and I really doubt they make rounds on Saturday afternoon/evening. Same goes for the staff of the county board of health.
So what do we do?
Atlanta is a special place to many people, including me. Not only is it where I work and reside during the week, it is also the home of our national office of the American Cancer Society.
The mayor (who happens to be excellent, in my personal opinion) made it very clear recently how much she appreciated the presence of our home office in her city, and we are glad to be here.
Maybe Mayor Franklin can give the police a call and figure this out. I realize it is important for police officers to spend their valuable time on patrol and devoting their efforts to things that need their attention. I have respect and admiration for the job they do. And, I can understand why this doesn’t rise high on their list.
But I also suspect a couple of citations to customers—with escalating fines—will quickly bring the establishment in question into line with the law. After all, this is not just about comfort—it is about our health.
Hopefully, someone will get the message. After all, if New York and Ireland can do it, why not Atlanta?
Maybe the next time we “Twist” into the fancy place, it will be a bit more comfortable for some of us who might otherwise like to patronize it. (Yes, that is the name of the restaurant. I had to figure out a clever way to insert it into this blog.)
It would be a sad day if the health of many—including people who work in these establishments—is sacrificed for trend or ignorance or lack of caring.
After all, if a restaurant flaunts their lack of concern about their workers’ and patrons’ health in the restaurant where you can see what is going on, you probably should be concerned about how careful they are preparing your food back in the kitchen.