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July 18, 2003

Austin Smoking Ordinance Delayed

By Byron LaMasters

Last week, I wrote that the Austin City Council was considering a delay of it's smoking ban bars, restaurants and music venues. The ban was passed by a 4-3 vote last month. 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. Yesterday, by a vote of 5-2, the council voted to delay the ban until January 2, 2004. The Austin American Statesman reports:

Like some horror-show monster, Austin's smoking ordinance seems to come out only after dark.

It also never seems to die.

City Council members voted 5-2 late Thursday to put off a smoking ban in most restaurants, bars and music venues until Jan. 2. It was the second late-night vote on the issue in six weeks.

And it is unlikely to be the final act. A majority of the council has voiced opposition to a ban and has been eager to find a compromise that would ease requirements on bar owners, who fear it will cut into their business.

Health groups urging a total ban have warned that a compromise probably would damage the health of waiters, waitresses, bartenders and other employees in smoky rooms.

The new rules were scheduled to take effect Sept. 1. The council is supposed to vote in late September on the city's toughest budget in well over a decade.

Mayor Will Wynn, who opposes the smoking ban, has frequently noted the city is preparing for potential tax increases, layoffs and other trappings of a budgetary nightmare.

He said Austinites do not need the distraction of the spring's biggest controversy through the summer maelstrom.

Although the council has been split throughout the debate, there was more unanimity for a delay.

Just Council Members Danny Thomas and Daryl Slusher voted against Wynn's proposal.

"I still support the ordinance, but I think it does make sense to defer the implementation of it for a few months until we decide what's going to happen to it," Council Member Betty Dunkerley said.

The council has changed since the smoking ordinance passed. Mayor Gus Garcia, who championed stricter rules, left office shortly after the measure passed.

Wynn, who was elected mayor in May, replaced Garcia.

And Brewster McCracken, whose opposition to a ban became a cornerstone of his council campaign, now has a seat on the dais.

Council Members Jackie Goodman and Raul Alvarez opposed the ban from the beginning, while Dunkerley, Slusher and Thomas supported it.

Even with opposition to the ordinance, few expect members to pull back to current rules that allow burning cigarettes at times in many restaurants and in bars almost all of the time.

Instead, most members are waiting to see what comes out of a city committee made up of health advocates and bar owners that is exploring the issue.

So far, the committee has found little room for compromise. But the council has already shown its willingness to look for middle ground, even if it's unpopular.

Although a majority favored stricter smoking regulations, the council balked at a total ban last month. The final ordinance has exemptions for bingo halls, billiard parlors and meeting halls for fraternal groups.

Both sides of the debate complained about the exemptions.

Health groups said a bartender in a pool hall deserved the same protection as one in a nonspecialty bar.

Owners warned that smokers -- the majority of their patrons -- would more likely buy their drinks in a pool hall if they could light up there.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at July 18, 2003 12:27 PM | TrackBack


I think the Statesman article really misses the point. The issue that concerns me is not the health of bartenders, since nobody is forcing them to work as bartenders. I'm guessing that bartending is probably not a career frequently chosen by individuals intensely concerned with their respiratory health. Yet most of the articles I have read about the Austin smoking ban focus on employee health, implying that second-hand smoke is just a nuisance to non-smokers.

But to dismiss smoking as merely annoying to non-smoking patrons of bars and restaurants is ludicrous, considering how many people suffer from serious respiratory diseases, such as asthma and emphysema. I have a lung disorder that is exacerbated by smoke. My grandmother, who died of a rare lung disease, was on oxygen for the last few years of her life. It was almost impossible for her to go to restaurants because of the dangers second-hand smoke posed for her.
If she had been a drunk, she would also have been forced to avoid bars.

In all seriousness, though, smokers' rights should not even be an issue, since smoking necessarily limits the freedoms of people with illnesses. I understand that bars are worried about losing business, but frequent bar patrons are not likely to storm out of the bars en masse (not without a great deal of wobbling, at least).

I think that a reversal of the smoking ban (since this seems to be the way City Council is headed) would be a huge, disappointing step backwards.

Posted by: Katherine at July 18, 2003 07:50 PM
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