The Georgia Smokefree Air Act of 2005 was signed by Governor Sonny Perdue Tuesday, and will become effective on July 1. The bill has been described in the media as a widespread "smoking ban" that leaves only a "handful" of public places where smoking will still be allowed. It has also been described as a "public health measure," and as a great "success" for the state of Georgia.
The Rest of the Story
First, it is important to be clear about what the Georgia law does and does not do. It does not ban smoking in all bars and restaurants. It does not ban smoking in all restaurants. It does not ban smoking in all restaurants at which minors are allowed.
What it does is restrict smoking in restaurants at which minors are allowed to enclosed, separately ventilated areas of any size, in which employees work, with no restrictions on smoking in adult-only restaurants or bars. As I have documented, the levels of secondhand smoke in the newly-created separately ventilated smoking areas are going to be extremely high and are likely to cause severe, adverse health effects for the unfortunate restaurant workers who are forced to work in such areas (see: Siegel M, Husten C, Merritt R, Giovino G, Eriksen M: The health effects of separately ventilated smoking lounges on smokers: Is this an appropriate public health policy? Tobacco Control 1995; 4:22-29).
So this is hardly a widespread smoking ban and it hardly leaves just a "handful" of public places where people can smoke.
Second, while the original bill introduced into the legislature was a public health measure, I don't view this highly contrived patchwork of legislation that guarantees protection to not a single worker in the state of Georgia to be a public health measure.
First of all, it is not designed to protect people from secondhand smoke. It specifically chooses to protect only youths from secondhand smoke and to exclude adults from such protection. I don't see any public health rationale behind an approach that is based on a premise that carcinogens are very bad for kids but acceptable for adults.
Second of all, it is not designed to protect workers from secondhand smoke, just patrons. But patrons can choose to eat at a smoke-free restaurant if they want. We don't really need the legislature to intervene to create more smoke-free choices for customers. If we need anything, it is for the legislature to intervene to ensure a smoke-free working environment for all employees. I simply don't see a strong public health rationale behind an approach that is based on a premise that carcinogens are very bad for customers, but acceptable for workers.
Finally, I don't see this bill as a "success." If anything, I'm afraid it may hurt long-term efforts to promote and ensure a safe working environment for citizens in Georgia and elsewhere by framing the problem of secondhand smoke exposure in two unfortunate ways:
1) The bill clearly frames secondhand smoke as a problem of youths, but not adults. The whole focus on restricting smoking only insofar as to protect youths from being exposed is based not on any defensible public health rationale, but more on some sort of political feasibility rationale. I think it does damage, because it sends the message that secondhand smoke exposure is only a problem insofar as it affects youths. The very message that is sends condones and institutionalizes adult exposure to carcinogens as an acceptable way of life.
2) The bill clearly frames secondhand smoke as a problem of customers, but not workers. The whole focus on restricting smoking only insofar as to protect customers from being exposed is based not on any defensible public health rationale, but also on some sort of political feasibility criterion. In fact, it is the workers who need the protection the most - not the customers. While the customers may be present for a couple of hours at a time, workers are likely there for 40 or more hours per week.
I am seriously concerned about how the framing of this legislation is going to affect efforts in other states. By creating this youth-only focus, I'm afraid the Georgia experience is going to give legislators in other states a nice political out that they may not have previously had. If this approach spreads beyond the Peach State, it will be a public health disaster. First, because lots of opportunities to provide real, guaranteed protection for all citizens - adults and kids alike - and for employees as well as patrons will go down the wayside. Second, because this inconsistent and largely unjustified public health approach makes public health practitioners everywhere look as if we do not really stand for any solid principles, but are just trying to interfere with people smoking as much as possible.
That's not what I'm in this for. I'm in this to try to save lives and reduce morbidity and suffering. And taken as a whole, I do not think Georgia's Smokefree Air Act of 2005 will do either.