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If you support the smoking ban, don't pretend you want to keep Austin weird

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The fervor of the current smoking debate is not quite as intense as that of the toll road controversy, but it's almost as unexpected. The issues are fairly clear-cut.

There is a wide range of arguments in favor of the smoking ban, but the core argument is pretty much that it is a health and safety issue: that smokers in an enclosed building force a health risk on nonsmokers, so let's ban indoor smoking everywhere. It is detrimental not only to customers, but, even more so, to the safety and well-being of staff and performers. Nonsmoking staff and performers are imposed upon (I don't buy the well-if-they-don't-like-it-they-can-get-a-job-elsewhere argument, as it ignores working-class economic realities and music business strategies). The argument goes on to assert that, even if there is a temporary lag in business, over time things will return to normal, as many studies have indicated. It concludes by asserting that over time a smoking ban will improve health conditions and – by attracting a new, nonsmoking audience – clubs' business.

Those opposed to the ban include people nervous about any legislation of morality and the legislative triumphs of crusaders. There are those who really worry about the economic health of music clubs and other businesses. If you support the smoking ban, don't pretend you want to keep Austin weird. You may well love Austin, but you're willing to sacrifice some of its character for greater concerns.

The council and community often brag about Austin's live music scene, but they don't do much to help it. There are ever more roadblocks to the thriving of live music businesses. Club owners are very stressed over the possible consequences of the proposed smoking ban. Even if they are wrong, why is this community creating more stress for them, rather than finding ways of supporting them?

A compromise was reached: Only 211 businesses allow smoking. Yet, before the compromise is even given a chance to work, a full ban is being pushed aggressively. Imagine the impact this push has on club owners.

Obviously, no one really knows what the economic impact of the proposed smoking ban will be. I'm most nervous for the marginal clubs. I do support live music in Austin and think a good deal of the diversity and vitality of the scene comes from the number and range of the clubs. Maybe the smoking ban won't hurt clubs. Maybe, even if it does, Austin can stand to lose a number of small clubs without there being an impact on the overall scene. But is pushing that agenda really supporting live music?

One pro-ban letter-writer offered: "Six months ago, Massachusetts enacted a smoking ban that encompassed the entire commonwealth. Bar and restaurant owners were furious, claiming that it would put a huge dent in their profits and place undue harm on the entertainment business.

"Today, Harvard University has reported that the sales and employment of all Massachusetts restaurants and bars have actually increased since the smoking ban.

"Six months. More jobs. More sales."

Similar statistics are available in many (but not all) places where smoking bans have gone into effect. Overall sales and employment in the restaurant and bar industry show no long-term ill effects; even if there is an immediate dip following the ban, there is a correction. But these numbers leave out as much as they include. What they ignore is the kind of business that thrives and prospers. How many businesses – especially the smaller ones – that were open when the ban went into effect stay open? How have mom-and-pop businesses done? How have live music clubs done? Are fast-food chains earning a larger, a smaller, or the same percentage of the total as they did before the ban? At least some of the information shows that, although overall income doesn't change, the nature of the businesses succeeding does.

Another writer offers, "I'm not sure how Black can be so certain about the economic impact of a smoking ban, but let's consider what his conclusion says about those who care about Austin's live music scene as much as he does.

"The possible economic damage of a smoking ban will occur if most smokers no longer go to the clubs. In other words, these smokers are going to the clubs to smoke. They have little or no commitment to the bands or venues. So, the 'vitality' of Austin's live music scene is resting on the whim of smokers whose lifestyle choice has absolutely nothing to do with the music scene that Black cares so much about."

I love this postulation! If the audience is not there for the "right" reasons, are the musical performances of any value? I've always thought the scene owed as much to the incredible number of bands as to the large audience for live music, but I was missing out on the nuances of the philosophical imperatives that needed to be considered.

The writer goes on: "Yes, less business from smokers is a possible result of a smoking ban, but let's also consider some possible benefits for Austin's live music scene: More attendance from nonsmokers. Continued attendance from smokers who value the music scene more than their smoking. Improved air quality for Austin musicians, venue employees, and patrons.

"Even if the smoking ban passes, people will still be free to smoke in the vast majority of Austin in places called 'the outdoors.' Voters should be aware that, unlike the Round Rock ordinance, Austin's ordinance does permit smoking on outdoor patios."

The writer has a totally valid point and could very well be right. But he might not be. This point of view shows a willingness on the part of the anti-smoking community to gamble with the enormous amount of emotional investment, sweat equity, and significant cash commitments of live-music club owners.

There is no single gotcha, mind-changing argument here. Each voter is going to have to consider the factors and make up his or her own mind.

I'm opposed to this smoking ban for a number of reasons. There are only 211 businesses where smoking is allowed: In most businesses, it is now banned. This community is overly vocal in declaring its love for the live music scene but does little to support it. Many club owners who are on the front line of the music business see this ban as a very real threat. Regardless of whether their concerns may (or may not) prove to be accurate, as a community can't we figure out how to actually support them, rather than add to the many already existing pressures?

This community supports small businesses and keeping Austin weird. Yet, as happens all too often, the recent history of the smoking ban demonstrates that in Austin politics, nothing is really ever over. First, compromise legislation that still impacts many small businesses was passed, but before there has even been time to gauge the effects, there is a strong movement to dramatically change course by imposing more severe restrictions.

Running a small business, especially one like a live music club, is unbelievably stressful. Why can't Austinites walk the walk of the talk they talk, actively supporting the live music scene, rather than putting more pressure and restrictions on it at every turn? end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin smoking ban, Austin live music, Austin economy, Austin smoking clubs, Austin nonsmoking clubs, Austin nonsmoking music, Austin anti-smoking, Austin club owners, Austin City Council

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