On May 9, Georgia non-smokers received a breath of fresh air when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law the “Georgia Smokefree Air Act of 2005.”

The law, which goes into effect July 1, serves as an expansion of existing prohibitions, making it illegal to light up in any enclosed public space -- with a few exceptions.

Those exceptions dealing with restaurants and bars are causing confusion, and some distress, among Savannah restaurateurs.

“There is a lot of ambiguity, the way it has been explained so far,” says Pino Venetico, owner of Il Pasticcio restaurant at Broughton and Bull.

Venetico’s concerns arise from Section 31-12A-6a-9A of the Smokefree Act, which provides an exception to the smoking ban for “all bars and restaurants to which access is denied to any person under the age of 18 and that do not employ any individual under the age of 18.”

Thus, legally, if a restaurant chooses to ban minors from their premises, they could continue to allow smoking.

“There are questions like, what if I stopped serving minors at a certain time,” Venetico points out. “Could I then allow smoking? Most families tend to eat early, and the majority of my smoking business comes in later, so what if I stopped allowing minors in at 9:30 or so?”

Venetico is not alone in his concern. Churchill’s Pub and Restaurant on Bay Street currently denies access to minors after their kitchen stops serving dinner, and the business focus shifts to the bar patrons.

Owner Andy Holmes doesn’t see any reason why patrons shouldn’t be allowed to smoke after the doorman has assumed his position later in the evening.

“I mean, if the point is to try and limit minors‚ exposure to second-hand smoke, wouldn’t that do it?”

The issue is more than a little relevant for downtown restaurants. Holmes estimates that at least 25 percent of his clientele carry a pack of cigarettes with them when they come into Churchill’s. That’s a sharp contrast to the 10 percent of his business involving minors.

If forced to make a decision between allowing smoking or allowing minors in his establishment, the economic equation does not bode well for the minors.

“I hate the fact that I’m being forced to make this decision,” Holmes laments. “We don’t like the idea of excluding anyone.”

Venetico estimates that his clientele includes close to 30 percent smokers. But he places more weight on the revenue brought in serving minors and families with young children.

“We do a good bit of business with minors -- especially around prom, graduation time.”

He maintains that, regardless of the eventual interpretation of the new law, Il Pasticcio will not go all-smoking.

For others, the decision is not as torturous. Brian Grenchik, owner of A Vida restaurant on Broughton Street, has a young son who joins him often for meals there.

“I’m not going to tell my son that for the next fifteen years or so, he can’t come in my place.”

Overall, Grenchik is happy to have the smoking ban. In its current configuration, A Vida allows smoking at the bar and at small cocktail tables adjacent to the bar.

But Grenchik, whose grandmother is currently suffering from lung cancer, has no problem disposing of all the restaurant’s ashtrays and matchbooks.

“Sure, smokers have rights, but non-smokers have the right to live, too.”

Even with 16-foot ceilings and a good ventilation system, Grenchik says he still receives numerous comments from non-smokers about cigarette smoke ruining their meals. He maintains that he has definitely lost customers because he allows smoking, although he can’t recall anyone ever canceling because they couldn’t smoke at one of the tables in his main dining area.

Perhaps 15-20 percent of A Vida’s business consists of smokers. From Grenchik’s perspective, that makes 80 percent non-smoking. And he doesn’t expect to lose all of his smokers when the ban goes into effect.

“I’ve heard some smokers who were happy about the ban. It will give them an excuse to quit.”

Others aren’t finding it as easy to accept the abrupt, forced change in their operations. Il Pasticcio allowed smoking anywhere in the restaurant when it first opened in December 1993. Public opinion and market trends have since caused Venetico to limit smoking to the bar and the “lounge area” adjacent to the bar.

Venetico swears that he cannot recall a single instance of a customer complaining because of cigarette smoke. In 1999, Il Pasticcio underwent major renovations, and one feature of the restaurant’s new design was an open kitchen, where those dining in the main area could watch cooks prepare their dinner. This open cooking necessitated the installation of a powerful ventilation system.

“It recycles the air very quickly,” Venetico says. “In fact, when we first put it in, it was too strong -- it would suck things off of tables.”

This system, coupled with the high ceilings at Il Pasticcio, make Venetico confident that no one has ever been disturbed by smoking in his restaurant.

“I guarantee that you could smoke at one table, and the people sitting right next to you would never know.”

Andy Holmes of Churchill’s also knows about ventilation. The latest manifestation of his business opened on Dec. 26, 2004, in its newly-renovated location on Bay Street. As part of the extensive renovation effort, Holmes installed a costly smoke-removal system which completely recycles 60 percent of the air in his restaurant in less than a minute.

“That means that 100 percent of the air in here is replaced by fresh air every two minutes.”

Holmes, like Venetico, claims that he has never had a complaint about smoking in Churchill’s.

“On the contrary,” he states, “I’ve had dozens of compliments, mostly from smokers themselves -- that they can hang out here and go home, and their clothes don’t smell like smoke.”

The stipulation about minors isn’t the only aspect of the Georgia Smokefree Act of 2005 that Savannah restaurant owners have questions about. Il Pasticcio and Churchill’s both have separate, enclosed rooms within their establishments which each owner would love to use as a dining area for smokers.

Holmes and Venetico are both unclear as to what constitutes an enclosed space, what the ventilation requirements will be, and whether or not they should be allowed to serve food in these areas.

These questions may be more readily answered than those relating to the admission of minors by a close reading of the Smokefree Act. Section 31-12A-6a-9B of the Act provides an exception to the smoking ban for private rooms in restaurants and bars if such rooms are enclosed and have an air handling system independent from the main air handling system that serves all other areas of the building, and all air within the private room is exhausted directly to the outside by an exhaust fan of sufficient size.

And Section 31-12A-2-5 states that: “Enclosed Area‚ means all space between a floor and ceiling that is enclosed on all sides by solid walls or windows, exclusive of doorways, which extend from the floor to the ceiling.”

Other questions are not so readily addressed by the new law. Are business owners liable if someone is found smoking in an unauthorized area in their establishment?

If so, what is the fine structure for this offense? Are employees allowed to smoke in the business after hours, when it is closed to the public?

The Smokefree Act gives responsibility for enforcement to the Department of Human Resources. But who will actually be writing the tickets? Will it be the Health Inspector, or will DHR authorize local law enforcement agencies to enforce the Act?

State Representative Tom Bordeaux (D) of District 162 agrees that the Act is vague, especially with regard to the issue of admitting minors.

When presented with Venetico and Holmes’ suggestion that they close their doors to minors after a certain hour and then allow smoking, Bordeaux, an attorney, admits there is a lack of clarity in the new law.

“It’s not clear,” he says, after a close analysis of the law’s verbiage. “I could make a pretty strong argument either for or against their position.”

Bordeaux suspects that the provision about minors was introduced as an attempt to weaken the legislation in order to appease business owners who still want to allow smoking in their establishments.

“This was a tough piece of legislation,” he says. He remembers the Smokefree Act as one of only three bills introduced this past session which wasn’t “ramrodded through,” with its outcome already orchestrated by the majority Republicans.

“This was an extremely bi-partisan bill. Republicans and Democrats all have smokers and non-smokers in their constituencies. And although it’s the kind of legislation normally associated with Democrats, it was introduced by the Republicans.”

Bordeaux maintains that this was one of the few laws passed this session which was actually debated on its own merit, rather than being handled in a strictly political fashion. And, although he voted in favor of its passage, he is still surprised that the Governor eventually signed it into law.

“Amazingly, it passed,” he says. “I’m still shocked.”

Meanwhile, with less than six weeks until the implementation of the Georgia Smokefree Act of 2005, Savannah restaurant owners just want some clarification.

Section 31-12A-9 of the Act reads: “The Department of Human Resources... may engage in a continuing program... to guide owners, operators, and managers in their compliance with [this chapter of the Act].”

Such guidance would be welcome by Venetico. “You know, when California banned smoking, they just banned it completely -- that’s it, no more smoking. I don’t smoke, personally, and I’m all for a ban -- just not this half-way of doing it.”

He pauses as he considers all of the ramifications.

“I have to make a decision, but I just don’t have enough information.”

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