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Smoking ban in Decatur?
Councilman wants it; not everyone agrees

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

About six weeks ago, ashtrays ceremoniously left City Cafe in a garbage bin with food that patrons didn’t eat.

Restaurant owner Steve Alred placed a sign on the building that reads: “We are now a smoke-free facility.”

District 3 Councilman Ronny Russell wants to make all public places in Decatur smoke free.

Saying he is tired of breathing second-hand smoke, Russell will propose in July that Decatur follow 13 other Alabama municipalities and “absolutely” ban smoking in public places.

“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” District 4 Councilman Gary Hammon said of Russell’s proposal of a total ban.

Russell said he has asked the city’s legal department to draft the ordinance because Decatur’s 1993 smoking ordinance is vague and difficult to enforce.

If the councilman is successful in introducing the ordinance at Decatur’s July 2 meeting, he said, the city will have a public hearing on the smoke ban Aug. 6.

Russell’s proposal would ban smoking in popular eateries like the Brick on East Moulton Street and places like the Frontier Lounge on U.S. 31.

“Now, wait a minute,” said Monda Beene, a Decatur resident and former smoker. “I don’t think an ordinance like this one is right. Smokers have a right to smoke.”

Jo and Jackie Williams agree.

“If places allow smoking, then people don’t have to go there,” Jo Williams said.

“I smoked for 45 years, and I quit after my second heart attack,” Jackie Williams said. “But I’m not for an ordinance that tells business owners what to do.”

Mayor favors choice

Mayor Don Kyle has reviewed ordinances in other cities, and said he’s not willing to go as far as Russell wants to go. But, he said, he will support an ordinance that lets business owners select between being smoking and nonsmoking.

“You can’t be both,” said Kyle, a former smoker who had prostate cancer surgery in February. “If you try to separate smoking from nonsmoking, you’re fooling yourself. We all know that smoke drifts.”

Decatur will not be the first municipality in the area to deal with issues surrounding a smoking ordinance.

Athens policy

Beginning Jan. 1, 2005, Athens required businesses serving food or beverages to designate themselves as smoke-free, smoking restricted or smoking.

Smoking restricted establishments have to provide an enclosed room for smokers where the air is ventilated separately.

“Most of our places choose to ban or allow smoking, and I think that’s what will happen in Decatur,” Athens Mayor Dan Williams said.

Athens talked periodically about a smoking ordinance for several years before adopting it.

“We had people come to the council and they objected to breathing passive smoke,” Williams said. “The outcry against our ordinance was not that big of a deal. I think they will probably find a lot of support in Decatur.”

Kyle said he doesn’t want to follow cities that have ordinances with exceptions. In Birmingham, for example, the council banned smoking in restaurants, but granted exceptions to bars, grills and lounges.

“We should let the business owners decide, but require them to post a sign announcing whether they are smoking or nonsmoking,” Kyle said.

As for public parks, Kyle said, he supports designating areas that are not “prime-use areas” for smokers.

“We have residents who smoke and contribute taxes,” he said. “We just can’t totally ignore their rights.”

Hammon, a smoker, is worried about taking the decision away from business owners. He prefers ordinances similar to Huntsville and Madison that let business owners choose.

“This is a business decision,” he said. “I don’t think the city should, for example, tell a restaurant owner that he or she can’t allow people to have a cup of coffee and a cigarette.”

Hammon said he will support an ordinance that makes businesses declare smoking or non-smoking.

“But if we tell them absolutely they can’t allow smoking, people will break the law or go to other cities and spend their money,” he said.

Prompted by research on the danger of secondhand smoke in 2005, state health officials unsuccessfully lobbied Decatur to adopt a stricter smoking ordinance.

A spokeswoman with the Alabama Department of Public Health told city leaders that five minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke was comparable to smoking one cigarette.

In rejecting the state’s request in 2005, the council majority favored tougher enforcement of the existing ordinance or leaving it to businesses to adopt smoking bans.

After eating at a local restaurant with his wife, Russell said it’s clear that businesses will not protect nonsmokers. He said he was sitting in the nonsmoking section, but the entire restaurant was full of smoke.

“This is a health issue for me,” said Russell, who has a stepdaughter who suffers from asthma. “Because of the health risks, the trend is moving towards banning smoking in public places.”

Alred, who owns City Cafe and co-owns b.b. perrins, said both eating establishments are smoke free. Perrins has been smoke free for about five years.

Customer complaints

He said he decided to make the cafe nonsmoking, in part, because customers were waiting too long to get seats in the nonsmoking section.

“It got to the point that people were leaving,” he said. “My No. 1 complaint from customers was about people smoking.”

Initially, Alred said, business dropped about 10 to 15 percent, but nonsmoking customers are coming back.

“I’ve seen new faces the last two or three weeks,” he said. “A lot of our nonsmoking customers are telling people about us. I’m upbeat because we’re getting a lot of comments from people about what we have done.”

Mike Rains of Decatur is a frequent customer at the cafe. Because of the smoking ban, he said, he will visit the restaurant more often.

“I’ve tried to come here with my wife, but she’s allergic to smoke and her eyes swell,” said Rains, who had a friend who died of colon cancer.

He said he is concerned about the rights of smokers. “But, on the other hand, I should be able to sit down and enjoy my meal without smelling smoke,” Rains said.

Beene, a smoker for 37 years, visits Alred’s restaurant every day. She quit smoking about two months ago, but said she didn’t have a problem with patrons smoking in the restaurant.

“If I was still a smoker, Steve would be getting hell from me,” she said. “The one thing that kills me is when people come sit in the smoking section of places and then raise hell about people smoking.”

Some of Decatur’s popular eateries like O’Charley’s, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and Cracker Barrel have smoking and nonsmoking sections.

Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar on the Beltline went smoke-free about a year ago. Some customers complained, but business did not suffer, a manager said.

Smoke or nonsmoke is not an issue for some businesses. JW Steakhouse in Priceville opened sans smoke.

John Seymour, president and chief executive officer of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said his office will poll chamber members before taking a stance.

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