Last week, the Rome City Commission took up caucus debate and a first reading for the new proposed smoking ban on Broad Street. Before I go any further, it’s only fair that I confess I’m a smoker myself (yes, I know I should quit) who enjoys my occasional trips to downtown locales and events where smokers congregate. I also understand the public health concerns for non-smokers (especially children) as well as the environmental concerns for carelessly discarded cigarette butts that can potentially take up to 10 years to degrade, all the while polluting our sidewalks and oftentimes our rivers. The commission weighed a lot of ideas about this proposal at the meeting, mostly at caucus (which is not recorded, but is open to the public) and I think it’s fair to examine all sides of this issue.
The arguments in favor include the aforementioned health and environmental concerns. These are valid concerns. People should not be subjected to second-hand smoke and pollution when they go downtown. Many people also question government overreach, and while I’m all for government staying out of what people choose to do with their lives, this is an issue that does affect the rights of others, namely the non-smokers. Many cities across the country and even here in Georgia have implemented similar ordinances with no legal issues. This is a lawful exercise of city authority.
Arguments against include the somewhat ill-defined boundaries of the non-smoking area. Even looking at the map, city commissioners were unclear exactly how and why these areas existed as they were. City Clerk Joe Smith admitted it wasn’t the best and that he was working with GIS to provide a clearer map. Concerns were also raised about employees and tenants on Broad Street, and I think this deserves attention. Although other cities that have instituted these bans don’t seem to have had a problem with this, I do wonder what businesses can do for their employees and what landlords can do for their tenants who smoke. This ordinance does not designate smoking areas at all, only non-smoking ones. It is unclear how this will be resolved and whether or not it will affect employment (both for retail/food services as well as construction) and rental properties downtown. The ordinance also includes vaping devices, which is a controversial inclusion. Another concern has been businesses being fined for a smoker’s violation. That concern has been downplayed by city authorities who say that a simple verbal notification to a violator within the establishment is sufficient to avoid a fine.
But after hearing the commissioners discuss the issue, hearing stakeholders and concerned citizens and comparing this ordinance to what is currently on the books as described by City Clerk Joe Smith and City Attorney Andy Davis, I’m only left with one question: What is actually changing? The current non-smoking ordinance was apparently designed for businesses, particularly restaurants, that aren’t on Broad Street that could enforce the ban on their private property parking lots, as the current ban states there is no smoking within 25 feet of the front door of an establishment. This is a problem for Broad Street businesses, as 25 feet from their door is the middle of Broad Street itself, and they have no real jurisdiction to enforce the current ordinance beyond their own property, which ends at the sidewalk. Even businesses with outdoor areas technically do not own that area but use it with permission from the city. So, businesses cannot at this time enforce the ban, but smokers still violate it if they smoke within 25 feet of a business, meaning that they could technically go stand somewhere in the Broad Street median and be following the ordinance.
This new ordinance would ban all smoking on Broad Street and one block down on each side street there from, meaning that any business owner, or indeed any citizen, could tell a smoker they are in violation. It was even suggested at the meeting that someone could “call 911” on a violator in much the same way they would for a belligerent patron. That said, the Rome City Police has indicated that actually ticketing violators will be low priority for the department and it was generally agreed by all commissioners and city staff that ever since the current ordinance has been on the book (which does call for fines exactly as they are prescribed in the new ordinance) there has never been one ticket written.
We can pass this new, somewhat tougher ordinance, but I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, it looks good, but I don’t see how it will actually make a difference in enforcement as it doesn’t provide much greater authority to businesses or citizens and the RCPD has better things to do. I won’t hold it against any commissioner who votes for passing this ordinance: it’s good to support public health and clean streets and rivers. But I also don’t see a problem with voting against it since I don’t see how it’s actually going to improve anything in practice. Maybe the city will finally invest in public signage and raise awareness of what the ordinance actually is, as that could discourage smokers and keep them from lighting up.
A second reading and a vote is expected on the ordinance at the next City Commission meeting a week from today. If you have public comments to make or would just like to follow the activities, the commission meeting proper will begin at 6:30 p.m. upstairs (check with the city offices if they will have another public comment section, as they often require you to sign up to speak in advance). You can also live-stream the meeting from the comfort of your own living room.
Ben Amis is a local activist and organizer who lives in Rome. He studied theology at Asbury University and accounting at GNTC.