A recent dose of heart surgery, however, forced her to change her habits.
“I just realized how terrible smoking is,” Blackburn said. “Now the smell of smoke makes me sick.”
Smokers were not present at the Waffle House while Blackburn was there Tuesday — a scenario that will become permanent for her and other customers in January.
The Waffle House restaurants in Anniston and Alexandria will become smoke-free establishments starting Jan. 1, relegating all smoking to the outdoors. The change is part of a growing movement of businesses and municipalities instituting rules against smoking that some anti-tobacco advocates hope will encourage a statewide smoking ban in Alabama.
David Cooley, division manager for the two Waffle Houses, said the restaurant chain’s corporate leadership made the decision about two weeks ago. Cooley said Waffle House’s goal through the change is to increase its customer base.
“Our No. 1 complaint is families can’t go in because they don’t want to be around smoking,” Cooley said. “We want smokers to continue being customers … but we also want it so small children feel welcomed in these establishments.”
Cooley also said Waffle House is shifting with society, which has become increasingly anti-smoking in recent years.
Though there is no statewide smoke-free law, about 129 Alabama municipalities have some type of smoking ordinance. Anniston, Jacksonville, Oxford and Piedmont all have smoking ordinances that prevent smoking in certain public areas.
“The pendulum has swung … it used to be that everybody smoked,” Cooley said. “Now it’s the other way … we’re just trying to change with the times.”
Cooley said Waffle House decided to make the switch effective Jan. 1 to possibly help customers who might make New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking.
“We want to try to support them in their endeavors by offering a smoke-free establishment,” Cooley said.
Through next month, the Waffle Houses will tell customers about the change and provide them with comment cards to write their opinions.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Blackburn said of the change.
Ginny Campbell, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in Montgomery, said she was not surprised by the local change in Waffle House policy.
“People don’t want to eat and inhale smoke at the same time anymore,” Campbell said. “And businesses are finding out it doesn’t hurt their bottom line to be smoke-free.”
Michelle Bernth, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, said her organization has seen increases in smoking bans in recent years.
“Every year we see more and more establishments go smoke-free and more states and municipalities go smoke-free,” Bernth said. “A lot of businesses’ clientele no longer smoke, so they are providing smoke-free establishments for families.”
Bernth said typically, municipalities and businesses institute smoking bans before the state they are in creates its own anti-smoking law.
“Local ordinances are usually a precursor to a statewide law,” she said. “Hopefully that will happen in Alabama.”
Bernth said there are currently 27 states with comprehensive smoke-free laws, none of which are in the South. According to the American Lung Association, a comprehensive law includes smoking bans in all workplaces, restaurants and bars.
But even though there are multiple smoking ordinances in the county, not all of them are created equal. Anniston’s ordinance gives businesses the option of being smoke-free. Jacksonville’s however, requires businesses to be smoke-free or to install filtering equipment.
“It seems to have gone well here,” Johnny Smith, mayor of Jacksonville, said of the ordinance. “Nobody is complaining.”
Campbell also said she hopes Alabama legislators will be encouraged to pass a statewide smoking ban but does not expect it to happen during the next legislative session in 2013.
“With the legislators we talked to, we just don’t have the votes to pass a meaningful smoke-free bill,” Campbell said. “We’re still trying to educate the Legislature on why it’s a good thing.”
According to a 2011 report from the Alabama Department of Public Health, 8,685 deaths in Alabama in 2009 were attributed to smoking-related diseases. About $1.66 billion in excess personal medical care expenses in 2010 were attributed to smoking. Also, $2.84 billion in productivity losses were attributed to smoking-related premature deaths, while another $941 million in productivity losses were due to smoking-related illnesses.
To Blackburn, the quality of life improvement alone makes quitting smoking a no-brainer.
“I could tell a difference in my lungs after just one week,” Blackburn said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.