Birmingham’s new anti-smoking regulations, which take effect in 30 days, leave private homes and a few select areas as the final havens for smokers.
The City Council Tuesday overwhelmingly approved tough rules that ban smoking in nearly all public places and establishments. The ordinance was hailed by residents and public health advocates, yet questioned and opposed by some restaurant and bar owners who called it too restrictive.
“We’re making a statement, not only to the residents of Birmingham, but also to the legislators in Montgomery to let them know we’re taking it seriously, and they need to take it just as seriously,” said Councilman Johnathan Austin, who sponsored the ordinance.
Several council members during the meeting shared their personal experiences with smoking, struggles to stop smoking and the illnesses they’ve seen because of it.
“I was a smoker who smoked a pack and a half a day,” said Councilman Steven Hoyt, who said he quit the habit in 1995.
Hoyt said the birth of his daughter was a turning point. “I also respect the rights of others, that they would not be subject to the choices that others make,” he said.
Birmingham had last tightened its restrictions on smoking in 2005. With tougher limitations and a longer list of prohibited places — including hotels, bars, lounges and many outdoor patios — the city’s newest ordinance is among the state’s toughest.
The new rules have kept public attention since they were proposed in January.
Even Tuesday, members were adding and deleting language from the dais.
Councilwoman Valerie Abbott recommended tightening some rules, Councilman Jay Roberson worked to protect existing cigar and hookah bars, and Austin asked for relief regarding outside smoking perimeters.
When it was over, the eight members present voted for rules that create a seven-foot no-smoking zone outside building entrances, allow the use of electronic cigarettes, require signs marking outdoor nonsmoking areas, and exempt hookah and cigar bars whose sales are at least 80 percent from tobacco. The fine for a first violation is $50.
“The council just demonstrated its ability to work together and work toward an ordinance we could all be proud of and we could all support,” Austin said later.
About 30 people lined the chamber walls to speak at a hearing before the council’s long discussion, amendments and final vote.
The first speaker was Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman, who urged the council to pass the rules. Chapman’s husband was a nonsmoker but died of a respiratory illness last year.
Chapman said there are rules protecting the public from obvious health threats and hazards, but not enough protections against secondhand smoke.
Several neighborhood officers were also present supporting the new rules.
“I already live in a toxic area of town,” said Anna Brown, vice president of the North Birmingham Neighborhood Association, noting her area’s mix of heavy industry and residences.
Brown called the new rules an issue of fairness. Nonsmokers should not be forced to inhale the polluted substances from smoking, she said.
Dr. Mark Wilson of the Jefferson County Health Department praised the ordinance as “good health policy and good government policy.”
He and other speakers said the ban would protect lower-wage-earning service workers who are subject to secondhand smoke.
But James Little, president of the Five Points Merchants Association, said restaurant and bar owners had not received a fair chance to address proposals that would severely affect them. An updated draft of the ordinance was posted on the city website just Monday, he said.
“Something of this size should be treated like the comprehensive plan,” Little said, asking for a week’s delay to allow owners time to review the latest version.
Austin and other council members have said they wanted to address the public health needs of residents while also being sensitive to the needs of businesses.
Councilwoman Kim Rafferty, a longtime critic of the ordinance, was a surprise “yes” vote Tuesday. Still, Rafferty said she was disturbed by the compromise allowing hookah bars and cigar bars, calling that unfair.
“I do believe that everyone should have the opportunity to breathe clean air, but the ordinance has some flaws,” she said later. “I was made aware that the special interest groups submitted this ordinance, and I am very disturbed that they would not say one word concerning the severe health impact of cigar and hookah smoking. They only cared about their agenda item, which was cigarettes.”
Her assistant, David Ricker, went to the lectern during the meeting.
“We’ve all heard the ills of cigarette smoking, but no one has offered to ban the product,” said Ricker, who smokes. “If it’s that bad, let’s ban it and stop collecting the taxes off of it.”