Up in smoke: New ban begins Friday

By Michael Davis

This Friday is going to be a sad day for Rex resident DeAnn Cochran.

Virtually every day for the past two years, Cochran has been hunkering down at her favorite spot on the downtown McDonough Square to enjoy lunch, a read and a few full-flavored cigarettes. But come July 1, all of that will change.

"I think it's a sad day when Americans can't do what they want to," the 15-year smoker said.

A state-wide smoking ban will go into effect next week, kicking butts in many Clayton and Henry county restaurants with smoking sections.

Under the ban, only those restaurants with a private, designated smoking area on its own air conditioning system will be allowed to permit smoking. Restaurants and bars that do not allow patrons under 18, or have minor employees, will also be allowed to permit smoking.

But for restaurants where the smoking section is separated from the non-smoking section by little more than a few feet or a small partition, smoking will be stamped out.

"It's going to make a lot of people mad," Cochran said, sitting in a back booth at Gritz Family Restaurant, a downtown breakfast and lunch diner.

When the ban goes into effect, Cochran said, she'll likely have to leave her job at the county courthouse and take lunch and have a smoke in the park. She said she'll miss Gritz.

"It's a friendly environment and usually smoking doesn't bother anybody, or nobody says anything if it does," she said.

The Georgia General Assembly passed the smoking ban during the 2005 session, when Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in 130 years, giving the GOP control of both chambers and the Governor's office.

After weeks of wrangling, compromise and more wrangling, the House and Senate adopted the ban, though it was much weaker, and included more exemptions, than the one originally offered by the Senate. The ban was lobbied for heavily by health care interests, and sponsored by Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, a physician. The ban was floated for several years before it passed, always meeting an end in the Democrat controlled House.

Jonesboro resident, non-smoker Ralph Hawkins, thinks the ban is a good idea for restaurants.

"They always block off a section for smokers, but you can still smell that stuff all over the restaurant," he said.

Several cities and counties in the state already have smoking bans in one form or another, though they are largely more restrictive than the state's. In those areas, tighter local bans will supersede the state's.

Fines for flouting the state ban will be between $100 and $500.

Enforcement will be largely left up to the state Department of Human Resources through its Public Health Division, which conducts restaurant inspections.

Enforcement may also come down to self-policing and public awareness, said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who reluctantly signed the ban last month.

"This is not something we're going to be coming in and putting handcuffs on people for," Perdue said in an interview last week. "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," he said.

At the Steak 'n Shake restaurant in Morrow, the ban is not expected to have much effect, other than to decrease the amount of time customers stay in their seats before going outside for a smoke.

Manager Keith Greaves said he's waiting for direction from the corporate offices Monday as to how to transition the restaurant's eight smoking tables from smoking to non-smoking.

"I really don't think it'll effect us too much, customer-wise," he said. "The tables will probably turn quicker."

Gritz manager Kim Lee doesn't see much of a downside for that restaurant either.

"The last few days, we've had people come in and ask it if it's in effect yet before they light up," she said.

"I'm a smoker, so unfortunately everybody's going to have to get used to it."

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