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July 11, 2003

Austin Smoking Ban Status

By Byron LaMasters

Last month Austin passed a smoking ban for bars, restaurants and music venues by 4-3 margin. Two days later, the final council seat was won in a run-off by an anti-ban candidate, Brewster McCracken (who I supported, against pro-ban Margot Clarke). McCracken's addition to the council, along with the departure of pro-ban mayor Gus Garcia (replaced by anti-ban mayor Will Wynn), gave the anti-ban forces a 4-3 majority on the council. The majority is now seeking to delay the ban scheduled to go into effect on September 1:

They are not exactly addicted to it, but Austin City Council members are having a hard time putting down the citywide smoking ban.

The issue that ostensibly got its final resolution last month will come up for yet another vote next week, and even that might not be the last one. Mayor Will Wynn has proposed putting off the implementation of the ordinance until January.

Wynn, who opposed the ban as a council member, said there are too many questions about which businesses can continue catering to smokers.

The ordinance would ban smoking in bars, restaurants and music venues but allow it in billiard halls, bingo parlors and meeting halls for fraternal organizations.

Some bar owners have complained that the exemption provides an unfair advantage to competitors or will be a drain on their businesses. Health groups countered that the ordinance would protect the health of employees in bars and venues where smoking is now allowed relatively freely.

Wynn also said the implementation date -- Sept. 1 -- falls in the middle of the city's budget deliberations, and the smoking ordinance will be too distracting for council members trying to weigh spending cuts or tax increases.

The city needs to focus on the budget "and virtually nothing else," Wynn said. "It's not practical for us to clean up these loose ends prior to September 1."

A city committee also is considering the issue and is expected to report its recommendations this fall.

Some supporters of the ban immediately worried that the delay might be the first step in reversing the measure.

But Council Member Betty Dunkerley, part of the slim majority that installed the ban, said the new City Council might overturn the ordinance if a vote isn't put off.

"I would rather wait on the implementation than try to implement something that might be amended shortly thereafter, if not before," Dunkerley said. "I think the less confusion we have, the better."

On June 5, shortly before midnight, the council banned burning cigarettes in almost all of Austin's public buildings. Less than 48 hours later, Brewster McCracken, who campaigned against the ban, won the runoff for the last council seat.

McCracken joined Wynn and Council Members Jackie Goodman and Raul Alvarez -- who opposed the ordinance -- as part of a new majority that might overturn the ban. Dunkerley supported the ordinance with Council Members Daryl Slusher and Danny Thomas and former Mayor Gus Garcia.

Garcia said Thursday that Wynn's delay "basically is another way to kill it."

Julie Winckler, spokeswoman for the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition, which has led the push for a total ban, said a delay isn't necessary because the council has heard arguments on both sides.

"I think we all can see the writing on the wall, that this is an effort to weaken the ordinance," she said.

Opponents of the ban, particularly bar owners worried about losing customers, said a delay would allow them to look for alternatives that might be less worrisome for business.

"I think it was kind of a rush to judgment," said John Wickham, owner of the Elysium nightclub and president of the Red River District Association. "I honestly believe that we'll be able to come up with something a little bit more thoughtful than what was passed."

I don't smoke, and I support smoking bans in most public buildings and resturaunts, but I think that smoking bans in bars go too far. The ban easily has many unintended consequences, such as helping bars with patios and hurting bars without, and also increasing pedestrian traffic, as people go outside the bars to smoke (which is an issue in and around 6th street). I do believe that part of the reason for McCracken's large margin of victory in the run-off was due to younger voters, upset about the smoking ban, turning out to support him. I know more than a few people that voted for McCracken in the run-off on that issue, that otherwise probably would not have voted.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at July 11, 2003 01:10 PM | TrackBack


Just to be an old geezer who bores kids with the tales of the old days:

When I went to UT we smoked in the hallways. Yep, when you went to the Parlin (English Dept) building there'd be a whole crowd of us smoking before class. The Texas Tavern in the Union - major smoking and drinking going on. When they'd open the door to go out to the rest of the Union, a big cloud of smoke and the smell of Shiner Bock followed.

The phrase "political correctness" had just started appearing right before I graduated. I guess things have gotten even more so. I can't imagine how dull and depressing UT has gotten. I'll be there for a concert at the Cactus Cafe in August, I guess I'll see for myself.

Ahh, bring me back the 80s!

Posted by: Rob Booth (Slightly Rough) at July 11, 2003 01:54 PM

Smoke in the hallways on campus would drive me nuts. There's always plenty of time 10-15 minutes between classes to smoke outside, for the smokers out there. The thing that older people always seem most amazed about college campuses today is the number of people talking on cell phones walking between classes, because everyone has one. My parents just thought that was quite amusing (and Rob, I'm certainly not suggesting that you're as old as my parents).

Posted by: ByronUT at July 12, 2003 08:57 PM

Well, I'm 36. According to science, it's possible for me to be as old as your dad, but I doubt it. Although he and I probably have a lot in common.

The smoking in the halls was probably a bit much. But no smoking in the Tavern? Man, that stinks.

Posted by: Rob Booth (Slightly Rough) at July 15, 2003 04:08 PM

Out of place here but I'm doing a project on the smoking ban for my ACC class, thus the finding of this site at all. I agree with you totally. I'm a smoker and so I may have a bias opinion, and though I might personally enjoy smoking in the hallway, I can see how that is drastic, but I also think that having a smoking and non-smoking section as most restaurants did before the ban was fair and sufficient. Some places, like the Tavern, just aren't the same without the smoke.

Posted by: Bethany at March 26, 2005 12:27 PM
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