By Justin Boron
Georgia health officials aren't quite ready to bring down the hammer on establishments violating the recently imposed statewide smoking ban.
Almost a month after one of broadest prohibitions for tobacco-producing states took effect, a fine has yet to be handed down by the Department of Human Resources Public Health Division, said Mike Mullett, a spokesman for the division.
Charged with enforcing the law heavily lobbied for by health care interests, government health officials have decided that an educational period should precede any strict application, said Tod Rose, another state health spokesman.
"We didn't think it was really necessary to lay down the law so to speak," he said.
Rose said the division wanted to create awareness of the law among smokers, interpret it accurately to the public, and convey its holistic, public health approach before enforcement began.
The policy resembles closely what Gov. Sonny Perdue told a Daily Herald reporter in mid-June after he reluctantly signed the legislation.
"This is not something we're going to be coming in and putting handcuffs on people for," he said at the time. "We expect to inform people of the law, educate people, and I believe most smokers are going to be respectful enough that once they know about the law, that they are going to be complying with it and to some degree, that will be up to the restaurant owner to ensure that happens."
Fines for the ban would range from $100 to $500.
Rose said for the time being the public health division is logging smoke ban calls and complaints to develop some kind of assessment over how well it is taking.
Several local governments already had bans in place that are mostly more stringent than the state's. Some metro Atlanta jurisdictions with bans prior to July 1 are incorporated DeKalb County, Conyers, Douglasville, Athens, and unincorporated Fulton, Douglas, and Gwinnett counties, Mullett said.
Establishments not in those areas are left to self-enforcement until at least October, he said.
Spot checks of several cafes in Henry and Clayton counties showed that even establishments that used to be mainstays for smokers, like Waffle House, seem to have accepted that cleaner air is in.
Gail Glancy, 56, owner of Butch's Family Restaurant in Jonesboro, said aside from a few stragglers who haven't made it back since the ban took effect, her patronage hasn't changed much.
She said her smoking customers have been cooperative.
"I've not had anyone buck it," Glancy said.
Sharon Merritt, 42, the owner of Gritz Family Restaurant in McDonough, said her restaurant had catered to many smokers but might be better off now.
"There's a lot of rude smokers out there that probably upset people that didn't smoke," she said.
When active enforcement does begin, Rose said some of the burden will likely fall on local law enforcement.
Clayton County Assistant Police Chief Jeff Turner said he hadn't heard any instructions like that and to his knowledge the department hadn't cited anybody for violating the law yet.
But he said they would enforce it if they received a call or complaint because it's a state law.
"That's what we get paid for," Turner said. "To enforce state law."
The law passed during the General Assembly this year bans smoke in most places but has several exemptions including bars and restaurants that do not admit patrons younger than 18.
The following are some other places exempt from the ban:
Hotel and motel rooms designated for smokers, up to a maximum of 20 percent of the rooms in any hotel or motel.
Retail tobacco stores.
Long-term care facilities.
Smoking areas in international airports.
Meeting rooms at convention facilities which are not owned or operated by the state or by any of its political subdivisions.
Smoking areas designed by an employer which have an independent air handling system.
Daily Herald staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this article.