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MONDAY, JUNE 4, 2007
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OP-ED

Let businesses decide for themselves

By Bob Slate

Decatur officials have for more than a year now focused efforts at getting people to shop in Decatur. To that end, and to their credit, they have aggressively pursued a number of new retail establishments, culminating in the construction of a shopping center at Sixth Avenue and the Beltline.

The goal is to keep sales tax dollars in the city. There are bumper stickers, signs on windows and even a billboard on Central Parkway that states “Buying in Decatur Makes Cents.” The billboard contains a picture of pennies.

The campaign was originally designed to eventually alleviate the need for the penny sales tax increase the previous administration put in place. But there has been little talk about that lofty goal in the past year.

While we can debate the wisdom of spending money on signs to promote a campaign that targets mere pennies, there is little doubt that Councilman Ronny Russell’s latest crusade is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Mr. Russell believes the city should add another ordinance to the already cumbersome code regulating businesses. He wants to make Decatur smoke-free.

That is not a bad goal. It would be good for the public health.

I just have a problem with the manner he chooses to accomplish it.

While city ordinance already prohibits smoking in most public places, Mr. Russell would ban it altogether.

Currently, owners of restaurants and bars (the classes of businesses that can allow smoking) have the right to choose whether they want their establishments smoke-free. Many choose to do so (Applebee’s, for example, went smoke-free more than a year ago) and, as a consequence, reap an increase in patronage from nonsmokers who enjoy the smoke-free environment. Conversely, the establishments that choose to allow smoking must set aside sections specifically for smokers. Those that do obviously feel that smokers are a vital part of their customer base and crucial to the success of their business plan.

Under Mr. Russell’s plan, business owners would no longer have the option to promote a smoke-free environment. It would be mandatory.

I believe there is room in Decatur for both smoking and smoke-free restaurants and bars. So do many of the business owners who provide services in the city.

“But why should I have to breathe your smoke while I’m eating?” many nonsmokers ask. The answer is that you don’t have to. Nobody is forcing you to dine at one of the restaurants that allow smoking.

Currently, all customers have choices. Mr. Russell, however, is trying to force everyone to dine at restaurants that are smoke-free.

Or go to another city.

Mr. Russell’s plan will disenfranchise a segment of society, and Decatur businesses that cater to that demographic will be hurt.

I wonder how many businesses will fail, or simply move out of Decatur, because of Mr. Russell’s desire to over-regulate city businesses and everyone’s health.

And how many pennies will disappear with them?

Bob Slate is a Daily copy editor. He can be reached at bslate@decaturdaily.com.

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