By Justin Boron
Gov. Sonny Perdue inked over weeks of personal indecision concerning one of the broadest smoking bans in the nation's tobacco producing states Monday afternoon, when he signed the prohibition into law at a news conference in Atlanta.
Of 14 tobacco-growing states surveyed by the National Conference of State Legislatures, only Florida's ban matches Georgia's law in magnitude.
Even still, the new law is a much watered down version of what Georgia legislators initially proposed.
The original bill sought to extinguish smoking in all public places. After being amended in the House, it permitted smokers to light up in bars and restaurants that do not admit patrons under 18. Violators will be fined $100 to $500.
Perdue's decision came just one day short of the May 10 deadline for him to sign or veto bills passed during this year's legislative session.
The Republican governor had wrestled with the issue for weeks, torn by a philosophical conflict between what he considered the measure's good motives and the methods employed in the bill.
"We, as Americans, generally expect government to stick to its basic functions of providing safe neighborhoods, good schools, good roads ... and we want a safety net in place for hard times," he said Monday. "Beyond that, we really just want government to leave us alone."
Local business owners had been straddling a similar fence between public health and the belief that the marketplace should determine whether an establishment catered to smokers.
Cesar Martinez, 27, the owner of Graffiti's Pizzeria in Jonesboro, said 60 to 70 percent of his customers smoke. Because they comprise the bulk of his business, he has kept his restaurant all-smoking, despite hearing several complaints from families and being a non-smoker himself.
"(The ban) would be good for me," he said, although he added he preferred the revenue generated from smokers. "I really don't know what to favor."
Mike Capozzoli, 41, owner of Rocky's Pizzeria in Jonesboro, said because his restaurant is geared toward families, he supports the ban. But in places catering specifically to adults, like bars, smoking should be permitted, he said.
Under pressure from restaurant owners and lobbyist groups, Perdue warned of the precedent the law could bring.
"Folks, it's dangerous when we as a nation get in a place where we want government to do things for us that we won't do for ourselves. That is a dangerous place in democracy, it's a dangerous place in a democratic republic. And to some degree people who are asking me to sign this bill are in that position because they want to tell their customers who come in and want to smoke, 'Well, the government won't let you do this."'
Ultimately, Perdue said he decided to sign the bill because of his respect for the sponsor, Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, a physician, who convinced him the health benefits trumped his concerns over process.
Thomas said, "It's just really a good feeling down deep. I felt pretty confident he was going to sign it, but I understand the objections on governmental interference. ... It was our position all along that the rights of individuals to breathe smoke-free air supersedes the desire of smokers to smoke."
How the law will be implemented and enforced in Clayton County and other jurisdictions is still unclear.
Sheryl Taylor, the media relations specialist for the Clayton County Board of Health, said local boards are awaiting guidance from Department of Human Resource officials.
DHR officials will likely have the protocol for implementing the law laid out next month, she said.
In jurisdictions that already have a smoking ban in place, health enforcers have had to do little, Taylor said, relying mostly on restaurants self-enforcemening.
Places exempt from the smoking ban include the following:
é Private homes.
é Hotel and motel rooms designated for smokers, up to a maximum of 20 percent of the rooms in any hotel or motel.
é Retail tobacco stores.
é Long-term care facilities.
é Smoking areas in international airports.
é Meeting rooms at convention facilities which are not owned or operated by the state or by any of its political subdivisions.
é Smoking areas designed by an employer which have an independent air handling system.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.