Will Atlanta ever enact a complete smoking ban?

Decatur, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, and Athens all have one. Why don’t we?
Photograph by David Arky
Photograph by David Arky

In 2005 Georgia enacted a smoking ban for restaurants and pubs that serve or employ people under age eighteen. At the time, a bartender at Manuel’s Tavern announced, “Don’t worry, we’re not banning cigarettes; we’re banning kids!”

But in 2014 the storied establishment, where countless politicos have done their wheeling and dealing in nimbus clouds of tobacco, banned smoking altogether.

Manuel’s, however, is the exception that proves an enduring rule in Atlanta. Which is this: If you’re heading out to a bar, expect to come home smelling like an ashtray. Of the fifty most populous cities in the country, Atlanta is one of only seventeen without a total ban on smoking in restaurants and bars. Not only are we an outlier nationally, but we’re also bucking a statewide trend. Georgia cities small and large—Decatur, Albany, Savannah, Columbus, and Athens, to name a few—already have smoking bans on the books.

Why not Atlanta?

It’s an intriguing question, particularly considering Mayor Kasim Reed’s emphasis on “green” initiatives, like reducing the city’s greenhouse emissions, diminishing its carbon footprint, and supporting urban farms. You’d think banning smoking in bars would fit nicely among those priorities, especially in a city that is home to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Reed can’t be bothered. Through his spokesman, he declined to comment.

Certainly Reed can’t cite an economic argument. Study after study has shown that smoking bans have no adverse effect on businesses. One study, published last year in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, even focused on the South, comparing cities and counties with smoking bans to those without them. The conclusion? “We found no significant association between smoke-free laws and employment or sales in restaurants and bars.”

Like Reed, Atlanta’s city council isn’t interested. Says council member Alex Wan, who championed a ban on smoking at city parks, “It’s good to see the voluntary bans at institutions, but I’m not sure how restaurant and bar owners would react to a legislative mandate.”

We know how one would. Michael Benoit, co-owner of the Vortex, says, “A bar is not a place you have to visit, like an airport or hospital. You choose to walk through our doors, and we have the crazy notion that adult members of society should be able to make choices about their health risks. There’s an overall decline in the number of people who smoke—and I don’t smoke—but our target demographic appreciates just having the option.”

Benoit’s attitude doesn’t surprise June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association. “The South, with its heritage of growing tobacco, traditionally has been reluctant to embrace most health initiatives,” she says. Atlanta’s pedigree as a boomtown built on regulatory laissez-faire doesn’t help. Even Manuel’s proprietor Brian Maloof still opposes the 2005 law. “If you’re a business owner investing your blood and sweat in your workplace, you should be able to set the rules about legal products on your property without any interference from the state or city,” Maloof says.

So why the about-face? Manuel’s raffish old guard, unrepentant in its vices, is, not surprisingly, dying out, and is increasingly supplanted by a hot-yoga clientele. “It was just time,” Maloof says. “It’s mainly a nonsmoking crowd with a built-in expectation that a place will be smoke-free. Aside from a couple of complaints, this change has gone over beautifully.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2014 issue.