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Statewide smoking ban set to start Friday

Come July 1, smokers in Georgia will have to find some place outside to light up.

A new law that goes into effect at the beginning of the month bans smoking in many public areas, from restaurants that serve or employ anyone under 18 to most businesses around the state.

Polls show that the measure is popular with many Georgians, even restaurant owners like Jose Granados, proprietor of Amigos Mexican Restaurant in Thomson.

"As far as the restaurant goes, it's completely non-smoking," he said. "I think it's a great idea since everybody's got to do it."

But others feel a measure to ban smoking goes too far and violates business owners' and smokers' rights.

Melissa Chambers, a smoker for 17 years, asked McDuffie County Commissioners where her rights were during a February public hearing in which a similar, more watered-down version of the measure was considered in the unincorporated areas of the county.

"Currently in McDuffie County there are non-smoking restaurants, and there are smoking restaurants," she said. "The non-smokers have a choice. If they don't want to be in a smoking atmosphere, they can go to the restaurant that doesn't have smoking, or they can get their meal and take it home."

For Sen. Don Thomas, the Dalton Republican who pushed the measure through the General Assembly, the smoking ban has been a victory years in the making. He was asked to hold off on the measure in 2003 while lawmakers debated a bill raising the tax on tobacco, and the legislation died in a House committee last year.

But this year, a compromise version of the initiative passed the legislature. After publicly agonizing for weeks, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law.

"The people of Georgia are going to be thrilled with it," Sen. Thomas predicted, saying the savings in lives and money will eventually win over even those who disagree with the ban right now.

The biggest question mark about the law now is whether all the businesses that have to follow the measure will understand the whole thing when it goes into effect.

"This is a rather vaguely worded act," said Ron Wolf, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association. "This law has shades of gray."

Mr. Wolf said his group has been getting up to a dozen calls each week for help in understanding the ban. For example, Mr. Wolf said, the law allows smoking on outside patios at restaurants. But some wonder what happens if a restaurant has a patio that is open some parts of the year but closed at other times.

And the law lets local smoking bans stand, as long as those restrictions are stronger than the statewide measure. That could create confusion in some areas where counties and municipalities may have different smoking bans.

Mr. Wolf said he's meeting with a group that includes Sen. Thomas, other state officials and anti-smoking advocates to clear up the questions around the ban. But he said a "grace period" is needed while businesses try to get their arms around what, exactly, the law means.

"I don't think we're in a position to have resolution by July 1," he said.For his part, Sen. Thomas is more optimistic.

"I think it will be cleared up," he said. "And, really, it's pretty clear that if they employ anyone under 18 or serve anyone under 18, they cannot have smoking."

Web posted on Thursday, June 30, 2005


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