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Butt out
Debate over whether or not to extinguish smoking in bars begins to heat up.
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The debate over a proposed municipal anti-smoking ordinance continues this week. The ordinance would close loopholes in the state's 2005 Clean Air Act, which currently allows smoking in bars and at outdoor seating for restaurants and cafes.

"It's based on a model ordinance that's been enacted around the country, so the beauty of it is that it's been held up through court hearings and challenges," says lobbyist and Healthy Savannah Initiative member Amy Hughes.

Others see it from a different perspective.

"You've got special interest advocates pushing this," says Sherwin Prescot, a local business owner and non-smoker who spoke at the first public hearing on the ordinance. "Not every solution is the right solution."

Formally introduced at a City Council workshop two weeks ago, the broader conversation about the ordinance's impact began during a public hearing at City Hall last Wednesday, and will continue at this week's quarterly Town Hall meeting.

During the first hearing, which might have been one of the most eloquent and impassioned public meetings in recent memory, advocates for and against the proposed ordinance - including health professionals, bar owners and Libertarians - made their cases.

One citizen, a non-smoker concerned with an abridgement of freedoms by local government, urged council members to reject "the creeping forces of Puritanism" that were encroaching from "progressive" cities to the north and "strangle [the ordinance] while it's still in the crib."

Although emotions occasionally ran high, several important questions were raised about how the ordinance would affect Savannah.

Nearly unanimous among the concerns of bar owners were the potential loss of business, increases in litter and street noise, and public safety risks inherent in large numbers of patrons congregating outside establishments beyond the control of staff and security.

"This will hurt me economically," said Susanne Warnekros, owner of The Jinx. "At least 85 percent of my customers smoke."

Bonnie Walden, owner of Bay Street Blues, echoed that sentiment.

"My business can't take another hit," she explained, worrying that because the law will only apply within city limits her customers will patronize establishments on the Islands or in Pooler, where smoking will still be allowed.

"Lost business is an issue," says Alderman Larry Stuber, when asked what arguments during the meeting caught his attention, "but we need some facts, not emotions."

According to studies touted by anti-smoking advocates, the economic impact on the service industry is rarely negative, but many of those studies bundle data for bars and restaurants together.

In a 2007 study, Professors Scott Adams and Chad Cotti, micro-economists at the University of Wisconsin, found that combining the numbers can be misleading because generally restaurants gain business after a ban while bars lose some business, based on the employment rates for each after passage of a smoke-free ordinance.

Because Savannah's proposed ordinance would only affect bars within city limits, it would seem to suggest that patrons interested in being able to smoke and drink without leaving their bar stools would head outside the city's jurisdiction.

"The more pervasive impact is that it stands to drive folks from facilities within the city to facilities outside the city that do allow smoking," says Mike Vaquer, the director of government affairs with the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA).

Although Vaquer and the GRA have expressed concern over the proposed ordinance, the organization supported the statewide measure in 2005 because it supplied consistency lacking from the previous patchwork of local laws.

"Under the patchwork, you had one restaurant that was smoking across the street from a restaurant that was non-smoking because of some local non-smoking laws," he explains.

Although there is no shortage of compelling health reasons - including decreasing the incidence of heart disease, cancer and respiratory ailments - there seem to be some technical issues with the adoption of a model ordinance rather than one designed specifically for Savannah.

While Healthy Savannah, with support from the mayor, would like to see the model ordinance passed as is, Hughes expressed some willingness to bend on what has become one of the more controversial measures: Stating that smokers must stand at least 20 feet from any window, door or seating area.

Critics say that in bar-heavy areas along River, Bay, Congress and Broughton Streets, there wouldn't be anywhere that smokers could actually stand in compliance with the law.

"What you realize is that what works in suburbia doesn't necessarily work in a downtown storefront environment," says Hughes. "So we're going to have to make adjustments to the model to make sure it works for our community and that it doesn't create additional problems."

The possibility of creating additional problems is still very much a concern.

"We've spent a great deal of time trying to ensure that underage drinking is curbed," says Alderman Jeff Felser. "People going in and out of bars and taking their cups outside to smoke presents an additional issue with regard to potentially allowing minors to have access to alcohol."

Another lingering issue is litter and who exactly is responsible for the discarded cigarette butts that will result from pushing smokers outside.

During the workshop two weeks ago, Councilwoman Mary Ellen Sprague expressed concern that in areas where more smokers head into parks and squares, "it becomes a city problem" placing additional demand on City maintenance crews to handle the butts.

Because the city is currently working with a model ordinance which isn't designed specifically to deal with the intricacies of Savannah, one major question that hasn't been addressed is how the role of to-go cups will impact the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Hughes cites the success of the ordinance in cities like Athens and Charleston. But in those places bar patrons must step outside to smoke while their drinks wait inside.

"For someone to tell me what works in another city, I appreciate that, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work in Savannah," says Felser.

"I think our city is unique and we approach everything we do from the unique perspective and not a model one."

Considering the open container law, it would seem more than likely that the cumulative effect of putting smokers outside bars would simply increase the number of people smoking and drinking in public, and offer little reason for them to return inside.

"I don't think it's a negative," says Hughes about the impact of to-go cups on the effect of the legislation. "If people want to go back inside, they'll go back inside. If they want to go home, they'll go home."

Among one of the more interesting alternatives offered was a tax incentive for businesses who went smoke-free.

A first reading of the ordinance is expected in early August, and following additional input or alterations, a vote would be taken following the second reading several weeks later.