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No smoking!

Smoke ’em if you got ’em, ’cause you may not be able to in as many places as before.

Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the only physician on the City Council, is studying smoking ordinances in other cities with an eye toward proposing what would be Houston’s first outright ban on smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants.

“The ban would be on smoking in public places — anyplace that conducts business and where people would gather, not in residences,” she said. “Smoking and secondhand smoke are dangerous for all Houstonians, and that’s why we are looking to move forward.”

Mayor Bill White, who controls the council’s agenda, said he might support adjusting the city’s existing smoking restrictions, but would not commit to a full ban.

“I support the efforts taken so far,” White said. “Whatever we do is going to have to be incremental and over time.”

But Councilman Gordon Quan believes that, if proposed, such an ordinance has a strong chance of passage.

“I don’t know how the sides are going to line up, but I was at a Quality of Life Committee meeting a while ago, and there was a lot of support,” he said Tuesday.

“I know it has been on the back burner for a while,” Quan added. “But I think the fact that other major cities are doing it, and that it hasn’t hurt their businesses and convention trade, is a good thing. Concerns with secondhand smoke have also been raised by the medical community.”

Houston is the only major metropolitan area in Texas that has not banned smoking in either eateries or workplaces, although many Houston businesses voluntarily have limited smoking.

The city does ban smoking in elevators, restrooms and certain retail establishments; requires workplaces to accommodate nonsmoking employees; and sets special ventilation standards for places that allow smoking.

El Paso barred cigarettes inside all workplaces, restaurants, and bars in 2002; Dallas followed with a restaurant ban in 2003; San Antonio and Austin banned workplace smoking earlier this year.

I worked for a summer in a “family” restaurant whose non-smoking section consisted of two tables in the back. If I ever die of emphysema, it’ll be because of that experience. As such, I’m pretty sympathetic to people who complain about smoke in eateries. That said, I can’t think of a whole lot of places to eat in Houston where there’s any noticeable smoke. This is one of those times where voluntary restrictions have worked pretty darn well, and I think we ought to tread very carefully here before we muck with it.

Of course, given the widespread voluntary compliance with no-smoking zones, enforcing it for restaurants and workplaces shouldn’t be that big a deal. Where the controversy will be kicked up, and rightfully so, is here:

Restaurant owners do express that fear, and particularly worry about partial bans that limit smoking in restaurants but not bars. They fear exempted businesses would have a competitive advantage.

Sekula-Gibbs said her proposal would group bars with restaurants, so restaurants wouldn’t lose business to bars subject to looser smoking restrictions.

She said she is consulting the various interests before drafting a specific proposal, and does not have a timetable. “We are gathering data from other cities on comparable language and gathering input from stakeholders, people with an interest in individual health and businesses.”.

She anticipates opposition from restaurants and smokers.

“Certain people look at smoking as an individual right,” she said. “They have to understand that they would still be allowed to smoke, just not in public areas.”

I have a much bigger problem with enforcing a smoking ban in bars. This is not to say that I have ever enjoyed spending a few hours in a smoky bar. I go to the non-smoking shows at the Mucky Duck whenever possible. But it seems to me that if bars attract smokers, then there’s a reason for it, and those of us who don’t smoke ought to respect that. Whatever it was that made the restaurant industry in this town determine that banning smoking was the winner hasn’t afftected the pubs. I think that’s telling us something.

What I do know is this: Sekula Gibbs is right when she says there will be opposition to this. I still think the City Council has bigger things to worry about than cigarettes. If we must debate this issue, can it at least wait until we’ve gotten the city’s financial health in better shape?

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  1. sarah says:

    I complained a lot in the past when Austin first started talking about a smoking ban but, as a recently-quit ex-smoker, I have to say that I LOVE being able to have a beer without facing temptation. Austin compromised on smoking in bars and I think it worked out nicely:

    “Businesses can apply for one of two kinds of permits. The first is an unrestricted permit for stand-alone bars. To qualify, alcohol sales must be at least 70 percent and no one under age 18 is allowed inside.

    The other permit is restricted for restaurants and bars. Smoking is only allowed from 2 p.m. – 6 a.m. and no one under 18 is allowed in the smoking area. Smoking is limited to a designated area equipped with a separate ventilation system.”

    (From News 8 Austin)

  2. CrispyShot says:

    Given your experience working in a restaraunt, Kuff, I was a little suprised that neither you nor the article mentioned the health of the bartenders, servers, et al. Secondhand smoke is bad for customers, true; but they’re in the establishment for a fraction of the time the workers are. And there’s evidence that filtration etc. don’t do enough for the employees.

    Here in MPLS/St. Paul, the same debate is raging, with some (though not all) business owners and state reps decrying this as another example of Big Brother stomping on the rights of individuals. Cast as an occupational safety issue, though, I don’t think there’s much room for argument.

    Unless you take the line given by that BC04 campaign worker: Why don’t they just find better jobs? And take a Prozac.

    (Sorry – snark mode off now.)

  3. Michael says:

    I can’t get worked up about it. Bands and bartenders work in clubs and if a smoke-free workplace is good for everyone, than it’s good for them as well.

  4. If you couch it in terms of occupational safety, then I agree there’s a stronger case to be made. I still think it’s not my highest priority for now, though.

  5. Steve Bates says:

    I don’t know, Charles. I don’t smoke, but both my parents did, so I effectively “smoked” for about 20 years while I lived at home. I’m pretty sure my mother did not stop smoking while she was pregnant with me. In other words, I’m pretty well cooked already.

    Even so, I still see smoking in public as a health issue rather than either a quality of life or individual rights issue. If tobacco were introduced today, as highly addictive as nicotine is, and as carcinogenic as smoking or chewing tobacco is, it would probably be banned under the standards we use for other drugs. (I do not advocate banning it; I’m just making a pretty clearly valid comparison with today’s illegal drugs.)

    I am all in favor of a ban in restaurants: many of them don’t take adequate precautions against exposure of nonsmoking customers. I see that as no different from having health inspectors look for rats and roaches and (of course) sliiiime in the ice machine… a public eatery should be at least minimally safe to enter and dine in.

    I have mixed feelings about bars, having been a working musician for a while earlier in my life. On the one hand, I do not begrudge smokers a place to go and socialize and enjoy themselves. On the other, for a nonsmoking musician, it’s a rough environment. In bars, all I ask is that patrons who smoke be considerate of the employees, who may or may not enjoy involuntarily sharing your smoke.

    One last thing: transit stops, especially bus stops with semi-enclosed shelters, should be off limits. Some years back, there was a bus stop in the Texas Medical Center that everyone called the “smokers’ bus stop.” The smoke under the shelter was consistently thicker than in any bar I’ve been in. I would walk literally almost a mile along Holcombe to catch the bus somewhere else. I truly don’t see any reason why the public should have to put up with that just to ride Metro. If people insist on smoking while waiting for the bus, let them do it out in the open, not under the shelters.

  6. Mathwiz says:

    One aspect that nobody’s touched on yet is whether the ban would reach patios and other outdoor venues. As explained, it appears Sekula-Gibbs’s proposal would ban smoking in such places.

    I’ve never smoked, but I really can’t see any reason to ban smoking outdoors, except for semi-enclosed areas like the bus stops Steve Bates mentioned.

    I hope that completely open outdoor venues will be exempted, since second-hand smoke shouldn’t be a problem in this case.

  7. Matt says:

    Here here. There is no need for a ban. That is a ridiculous thing to do and I knew it would come to Houston eventually, after seeing it go up in other cities across the state.

    Many restaurants and the like already DO have adequate ventilation systems to separate the smoking and non-smoking sections. I agree, many do not.

    So, instead of a ban, how about a more strict regulation of the types of ventilation systems and the way the smoking and non-smoking sections are divided? All a ban will do is make a good portion of the population more upset with governmental policy about taking away our freedom of choice.

  8. Ron Zucker says:

    I’m a smoker, so take that into consideration.

    I don’t mind smoking bans at bars. I don’t think anybody else should die for my sins, and there’s evidence that my smoking harms bartenders and wait staff. I lived through the change in California, and while it limited how much I went out for Sunday brunch (nothing could be finer than coffee, 2 eggs, toast, the Sunday Times crossword and a smoke), I thought it fairly safe.

    And I understand Steve’s concern about semi-enclosed areas. But please leave smokers an overhang. When it’s cold, or, worse, pouring, I don’t mind being asked to walk outside if i have a place sheltered from the wind and rain. But if you’re suggesting that I have to be away from semi-enclosed spaces, I just won’t go out to bars, clubs or restaurants anymore. That may be a good bargain. Perhaps there are more people currently not going out because of smoke than there are smokers. But I don’t think it’s such a hardship to have a covered area outside where we can smoke.

    Give me that, and I won’t fight. Take that away and I’ll fight like mad. Is that so unreasonable?

  9. Tim says:

    When we lived in California, we made a lot of friendships (and became known to bartenders who took care of us regulars) by being able to play NTN trivia at the bar every Tuesday afternoon after work once the smoking ban there took effect.

    Since moving to Texas, we’ve had to keep to ourselves, at a table in the corner of the establishment, just to keep as far away from the smoke as possible. We don’t even play the trivia much any more, because it’s not much fun with just the two of us challenging each other, and we haven’t met any of what is certainly the regular crowd.

    I really miss that.

  10. julia says:

    Well, yes, there is a reason. It’s a little more complicated than this, but what it comes down to is that one of the neurochemicals alcohol supresses is nicotine.

  11. julia says:

    Well, yes, there is a reason. It’s a little more complicated than this, but what it comes down to is that one of the neurochemicals alcohol suppresses is nicotine.

  12. “Smoke up, Johnny!”

    Hold on to your butts: Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the only physician on the City Council, is studying smoking ordinances in other cities with an eye toward proposing what would be Houston’s first outright ban on smoking in workplaces, bars and…

  13. CrispyShot says:

    OT Re: transit stops: Anyone else remember the San Antonio airport before smoking was banned in it completely? I don’t know who made the decision – the airlines or the airport – but the designated smoking sections for each gate area were the seats closest to the jetway. While it meant the smokers could wait until the last possible second to extinguish their butts, it also meant that everyone going on the plane had to pass through a hazy blue cloud to get on the plane.

    Good times.

    (BTW, Ron Zucker: Here in MN, the ban on indoor smoking places a particularly arduous burden on smokers in the winter. Seeing folks huddled against minus 20 temps has actually made me a little more sympathetic to smokers: If it makes you go out in that kind of environment, it must be wickedly hard to kick the habit.)