April 2014

Photograph by Amber Fouts

Not long ago, I went out in East Atlanta for the first time in . . . well, too long. When I first moved to Georgia in 2000, I spent a lot of my evenings there—more hours than I can reasonably recollect. The names of many of the places have changed (I’m enough of a sentimentalist to say I still miss the Echo Lounge), but a few stalwarts remain, like Mary’s and the Earl.

The other night felt like a bit of a flashback: a drink at a bar, then a band at the Earl, then some food at a late-night restaurant. Except when I got home, I noticed the strangest thing: My clothes didn’t stink. As it turned out, Argosy, where I met up with friends before the show, doesn’t allow smoking inside. As for the Earl, the musicians on the bill (Alejandro Escovedo and Peter Buck) had demanded a no-smoking show. And on the deck at the Octopus Bar around midnight, I didn’t see anyone lighting up.

In 1965 almost 43 percent of all American adults smoked. Today that percentage has been cut by more than half, to 18 percent. Which is, more or less, how many Georgians smoke. It’s amazing that number isn’t higher, considering how friendly the state—and Atlanta in particular—is to smokers. The state levies a 37-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes. That’s the third-lowest in the country. New York is the highest, at $4.35. New York City under Michael Bloomberg famously led the way in 2003 by banning smoking in bars and restaurants. Since then, city after city has followed, and the narrative has been the same: Advocates of a ban trot out the dangers of secondhand smoke, smokers gripe about the “nanny state” and minority rights, the law is passed, reporters interview smokers, the bar owners predict a hit to their business, the law goes into effect, and then . . . nothing.

Which is to say, the bars aren’t suddenly empty, servers aren’t suddenly laid off, businesses don’t suddenly close. The only difference is the air is clear.

Atlanta, in case you haven’t noticed, has no such ban. The stink-free night I enjoyed in East Atlanta recently came about due only to my own dumb luck. The reality is that, when it comes to public health, Atlanta is still mired in the twentieth century, even as cities across America (and Georgia) have woken up to a simple fact: You can ban smoking in places like bars and restaurants—making the places healthier for everyone, most of all the people who work there—and business won’t suffer.

The question here, then, is why? Why can’t Atlanta’s leaders like Kasim Reed, a supposed champion of sustainability, see what leaders in 500 other American cities have seen? The answer, I’ll admit, frustrated me. Read our article about on the topic and see if you agree.

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.