In a (nicotine) fit

Battle lines form over potential smoking ban

The likelihood that Atlanta restaurants and bars will see new smoking restrictions passed this summer has Michael Benoit fuming — and he's not even an occasional smoker.

Beniot, owner of Vortex Bar & Grill in Midtown and Little Five Points, is one of a number of intown restaurateurs gearing up for a tooth-and-nail fight against a City Council effort to pass a citywide smoking ban.

"There's not a lot about Atlanta that's all that great," he says. "The later bar hours were one thing that set us apart from other cities and that's gone. Now they want to ban smoking."

Actually, talk to several council members and you're likely to hear different versions of what the eventual smoking ordinance could be. One thing, however, seems certain: It's coming.

"The question in my mind is, how far are we going to go on this?" says Howard Shook, who chairs the council committee developing the proposal. Shook concedes that he has reservations about a smoking ban — "It aggravates my inner Libertarian," he says — and will probably favor lighter restrictions.

The last draft of the proposed ordinance would ban smoking not only inside restaurants, but would prohibit it within 25 feet of the building. In densely packed neighborhoods like Buckhead, it's difficult to imagine where smoking could actually be allowed — much less how such a rule could be enforced.

There is one possible break, though. The proposal, drafted by Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, originally did not provide an exemption for bars. But she has since decided bars ought to be the exception.

"If it's an adult enterprise where people go to drink and smoke, the law shouldn't prevent them from smoking," she says.

Which sounds fine, unless you consider that city law doesn't have a specific definition of what a bar is. Under current city code, many businesses that might commonly be considered bars instead fall under the heading of restaurant, depending on how much of its revenue comes from food sales. Thus, customers of the normally hazy Earl in East Atlanta would have to do their smoking across the street in Eastside Lounge, because the Earl has a full menu and the Lounge serves only bar snacks.

It also seems unlikely that the council would allow restaurants to have separate smoking areas. The best that pro-smoking bar/restaurant owners could hope for is a compromise favored by Shook and a handful of others on the council that would allow bars and restaurants to have smoking areas, as long as that designation was posted outside.

"I think what's most reasonable is an outright ban in dining rooms, but then to let bar owners decide for themselves if they want to allow smoking," says Councilman Lamar Willis.

Still, Willis and Shook agree that their view seems to be in the minority and that some form of smoking ban will come up for a council vote, probably this summer.

Like many bar owners, Benoit is still steamed that the council rolled back last call to 2:30 a.m., even though he says the change did not adversely affect his businesses.

No, what upsets Benoit is the idea that the council seems intent on chipping away at the bottom line of an entire industry.

"They create laws that negatively impact business owners without consulting with those businesses," he says. "It's awfully shortsighted."

The remaining question seems to be, will customers care? Archibong points to studies that show smoking bans in California, New York and other states haven't hurt the service industry or the convention trade.

"Across the country, where these bans have been passed," she says, "there's been no detrimental economic impact."