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Bar owners argue against expanded smoking ban

City Council took up the question of widening the ban on smoking to include bars yesterday, and bar owners railed against it for the most part.

While various organizations have expressed support for a stronger ban, it was clear at Monday’s meeting that some still adamantly oppose the change.

“Draft an exception to allow bars to continue to operate and make the decision whether they want to be smoke-free or not,” Philip Brinson, who owns three bars in Houston, urged council members.

I’m not sure how that’s different from the status quo. Surely any bar now can choose to be smoke-free. They’d have to enforce it themselves instead of being able to call the cops, but that’s about it.

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, chairwoman of the committee, said she hopes the council will vote to approve the measure at an Oct. 11 meeting. She plans to hold one last committee meeting on the issue next week to discuss the language of the ordinance, which now is being drafted by the city’s legal department.

“Bar owners, they’re just looking at the bottom line,” Alvarado said. “We have to stay focused as public officials as to why we’re doing this: It’s a health issue. It’s the dangers of secondhand smoke.”

I appreciate Council’s rationale, but the bottom line certainly matters. We’ve got conflicting reports out of Austin as to the effect of the bar-inclusive smoking ban there. We need to understand what this will mean as best we can before we take action.

Alvarado’s committee held a meeting last month on those dangers, citing the U.S. surgeon general’s recent recommendation that smoking be banned from all workplaces.

This time, council members considered a study on the economic impacts of smoking bans. An independent consultant used data from the first several months after Houston’s ban was implemented to show that it has had no effect on the sales of restaurants, including those with bars inside.

The study also considered other cities with similar bans and concluded that smoking bans do not hurt the restaurant industry overall, but can have different effects on various sectors of the industry, such as bars.

Some bar owners said a comprehensive ban would devastate their businesses because customers would instead go to bars outside city limits, where smoking is allowed.

That probably affects a relatively small number of bars. How far are you willing to drive for a pint? Unless there’s a unique draw – a musical act, a sporting event on satellite TV, etc – I figure most people will opt for convenience. Not everyone, of course, but most.

Since the city’s proposal is not yet complete, it’s unclear what exceptions might be included, though some say smoking should be allowed on outdoor patios. Michael McCoy, who owns McCoy’s Fine Cigars downtown, said he hopes shops like his that permit customers to light up inside also would be exempted.

“If they end up banning it in cigar shops I’d probably just close,” McCoy said. “It’s not like business is booming down here. You want to make it harder?”

One of his customers, Vance Burns, agreed as he puffed on a Flor de Oliva in McCoy’s lounge. “It’s like saying you can’t eat in Chipotle,” Burns said, gesturing to the burrito restaurant across the street. “That’s their business. That’s their livelihood.”

These are certainly reasonable exceptions, and I hope that if Council goes forward they will include them. You’re not going to satisfy everybody, but if this is definitely going forward, then a strong effort should be made to consider all special requests and grant exemptions where appropriate. Allowing smoking in bars that have sufficient ventilation systems, for example. Give the bar owners some options so they don’t feel stuck.

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  1. Jeff says:

    I think ventilation is great if you can properly define what that means. Ceiling fans and air conditioning do not count as ventiliation in some of these clubs, particularly the smaller one’s.

    I sypathize with bars and spend plenty of time in them playing music, but my lungs would feel a lot better if I didn’t have to breathe that toxic air everytime I went to do a gig or see a band play.

  2. My only concern with expanding the smoking ban further is the elimination of cigar bars.

    Granted these are few and far between in the Houston area, but I’d hate to not be able to go to Downing Street and not enjoy a nice cigar now and then.