July 14, 2007
What about that smoking ban?

Remember the expanded smoking ban that the city passed in October of 2006, which forbade smoking in bars? The ordinance contained a few exceptions, including one for "bars that promote cigar smoking and derive significant revenue from tobacco sales". Unfortunately, with enforcement of the new ordinance scheduled to begin in September, it seems that no one really knows what that means.

At his family-run bar in downtown Houston, Mike Shapiro relies on a strong base of cigar smoking customers. So ever since the city passed the no-smoking ordinance, he's been trying to apply for the cigar bar exemption.

"I tried going down there to find out when I can apply, and all you get is a run-around," he said "They're not ready. Well, we're in the middle of July and they're still not ready."

Even though the ordinance passed last fall, the health department still hasn't come up with a permitting process.

"Is this a little late?" we asked Kathy Barton with the Houston Health Department.

"I'm a little disappointed this didn't happen quicker, but it is a small staff over there that works on such an operation," she said.

Barton says staffers are working on a preliminary list of eight possible cigar bars they found from an article on the Internet, including Bossa, Downing Street and Crofts. But we found the list not very reliable. One of these so called cigar bars even isn't in operation. Paesanos shut down more than a year ago. It's now called Shadow Bar.

"They need to get busy on that," said Houston Councilmember Carol Alvarado. "I had hoped they would have had that worked out."

Alvarado says she thought only five bars were going to be exempted. But since no standard has actually been set, Shapiro hopes it's not too late for his bar.

"There shouldn't be a list," he said "Anyone who wants it should be allowed to apply for it."

This is ridiculous. I don't know what the exact wording of the ordinance is, but even that rather vague description given above should be definable in a way that bars who think they meet the standard can apply for the exemption. (I agree with Shapiro - there shouldn't be a list.) What exactly is the Health Department doing? I don't know what staffing issues they may have, but how hard can this be? Come up with a formula, post a form on the Health Department website, and be done with it. I'm mystified why it's taken so long. Hopefully, the story will spur some action, but it really shouldn't have come to this. Link via Houstonist and Miya, who did the reporting.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 14, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston