No Smoking, Austin: 10 Years Later

Chronicle revisits smoking ban at bars, music venues

On May 7, 2005, Austin citizens cast their ballots regarding an ordinance to ban smoking in nearly all public places, including bars, music venues, and bowling alleys.

This was the latest in a series of gradual restrictions; in 1991, smoking was banned from UT, a year later at AISD buildings, and in 1994, the City Council banned smoking in restaurants from 6am to 2pm.

photo by Challiyan/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 2.0

Each time a new restriction was proposed, there had been outcry, but in 2005, there was genuine fear that ending smoking at music venues would be the death knell of the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Even this newspaper’s editor – a non-smoker – wrote a series of editorials ("Page Two," April 1, 2005, "Page Two," April 8, 2005, "Page Two," May 6, 2005, and "Page Two," May 13, 2005). Despite many concerns, the ban was approved with 52% of the vote and went into effect Sept. 1, 2005.

Shortly after it went into effect, a lawsuit was filed in state court by several venue owners who questioned the ban’s constitutionality. The courts later invalidated the ban in part because it failed to spell out in detail the steps businesses need to take to implement the law. But in March 2008, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals restored the ban.

Now, 10 years later, many who frequent Austin bars and music venues probably can’t imagine a time when smoking in public places was commonplace. Those who are age 30 or younger may have never seen a concert in a smoke-filled club because they grew up in an era when such bans were the norm.

The Chronicle revisited some of those on both sides of the argument to reflect on the ban and get their input on what will probably become yet another debate in the months and years to come – e-cigarettes.

Reflecting back, what are your feelings about the smoking ban?

Philip Huang, MD, MPH, the Medical Director and Health Authority for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department

“At the time, the smoking ban was so far out there, like when smoking on airplanes was first banned. At the time when it was proposed, people were saying that smokers wouldn’t be able to survive on an airplane for hours without cigarettes. They would be lighting up in the bathroom, things would be catching on fire, there’d be burning and crashing. And now there’s a generation who can’t even imagine it was allowed. I was there in 1994 when the City Council was on Second Street. The hearing lasted until midnight and there were all of these restaurant owners lined up to say they were going to go out of business, saying you can’t do this, please don’t do this. Then it passed and it became very popular. You know, there are still places in Texas that allow smoking because we don’t have a statewide ordinance. Every couple weeks, someone says how they forget how good we have it here in Austin. They say they’ve been to some small town and forget that some places still allow it in a restaurant or a bar. In 2005, all the bar owners were saying they were going to go out of business. Then it becomes the norm. And that is what happens with each of these new proposals.”

Ginny White, Broken Spoke general manager

“I remember this whole thing coming up 10 years ago and we were against the smoking ban just because we’re a business owner and we didn’t want the City Council to tell us what we could do inside our business. It was more about that. We’re not smokers, so it wasn’t a personal issue. You can buy cigarettes and it’s legal. We were against it and I think my dad actually went down to City Council to voice his opinion against it.”

Marcos Canchola, owner, Barfly’s, Mugshots, the Hideout Pub, Bender Bar and Grill, Pour House Pub, Pints and Pies, and Violet Crown Social Club

“I think at first I was really upset mainly at the constituents because they had the opportunity to come out and vote against it. They didn’t come out with enough votes to prevent it from happening. It forced us to do a lot of things that wouldn’t have happened, like put in patios – there are some pretty fantastic patios out there now that didn’t exist before.”

Angela Tharp, owner, Flamingo Cantina

“My point during the fight against the ban was that I feel that government is seriously encroaching on our rights to run our businesses/lives the way we see fit. Next thing you know they'll be jacking with how much sound we can emit, LoL … My views have not changed; I do believe that the smokers have been forced to change, and that's not been a huge problem for us … I don't dig more restrictions as I feel there are plenty of rules already. Cigarettes are still legal, and yes, proven to be a health hazard. So are other things though.”

J.T. Travis, owner, Deep Eddy Cabaret

“I still firmly disagree with the fact that the city can tell bar owners what they can and cannot do with a legal, highly taxed product in an adult environment. People should be able to make that decision for themselves since it’s their business and it doesn’t belong to the city. I can understand that in a restaurant or grocery store or places where there are children or places where people want to do something where they’re not around cigarette smoke. I certainly understand that. It’s just that a bar is a different animal. Nobody forces anyone to go to a bar. If they don’t like the idea that smoking is going on, they shouldn’t go in there. I firmly still believe that, but you have to be realistic at some point. Those days are never going to be back. You either get used to it or you don’t go to bars. People are pretty adaptable. I think the whole thing is pretty much blown over … You have to learn to live with it or shut up about it. It’s not my mission in life, but it’s just at the time, it still does seem to be very unreasonable and unfair on many levels. But you can’t sit around and chew the same cabbage for years and years and years. It’s just non productive.“

What has been the impact of the ban?

Joe Ables, owner, Saxon Pub

“After 10 years of a smoke free music venue I can safely say that everyone is happy and business is good. Staff is happy, musicians are very happy and our smoking customers have adjusted very well thanks to the patio. We did see a lot of new faces after the ban went into effect and revenue went up. There is no question that our room is much better with no smoke not to mention there is less a/c maintenance and cleaning required now."

Philip Huang

“The fact is we’re down to less than 15 percent probably of adults in Austin/Travis County who smoke, which means you have 85 percent or four times the amount of non-smokers. And there were so many people who were not going out to these places because they didn’t like the smoke. If you remember those times, you’d come back home and your clothes and your hair would smell … There have been other studies in other communities that when you implement these kind of ordinances that acute heart attack hospitalizations go down. We know that there is a decrease in second hand smoke and the CDC has identified that second hand smoke is a major risk factor for acute events for people with heart disease…. I did an economic impact study when I was at the state. You don’t go to the restaurant owners and ask them about losing business. Or how much do you think you are going to lose? We actually looked at the sales tax revenue from the State Comptroller’s office for restaurant sales and all of that. I think it was done a year and a half or two years after the ordinance went into effect and we determined there was no adverse impact. I actually conducted studies at different communities around the state. All of these studies are well conducted and we look at Texas data. In fact, some of them show an increase in revenue after they went into effect.”

Angela Tharp

“I don't feel that the ban affected me as much as perhaps some venues because we do have a patio where we send the smokers … I think the non-smoking public has been well served, and I honestly do not feel that the ordinance has encouraged those non-smokers to get off their couches and come in when the 'smokey bar problem' might have deterred them to come down in the past.”

Marcos Canchola

“I’m very pleasantly surprised that the turnout that’s happened since then. Barfly’s was extremely smokey – grotesquely so. And we deterred people from coming in because of the smoke. But because of the ban, it’s definitely increased our sales. I think that people who wouldn’t have come in are now coming in because it’s not smokey … I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the outcome of the smoking ban. It’s helped my businesses for sure, but I can’t speak for others. After it first passed, there were definitely some people who didn’t come out any more. There was a backlash. They lost that fraternal thing of smoking at a bar. Most people don’t smoke at their houses anymore. It definitely slowed down a little bit. Once we got the patio, it gave people an option. All my locations have patios.”

Ginny White

“Most bar owners were afraid that people would be offended and they wouldn’t come back out. If every bar in town wouldn’t let you smoke, they’d have to go somewhere or just not go out. I really don’t think it had much of an impact. People in Austin, they’re totally different nowadays. A lot of the people who come out and dance are actually healthy that don’t smoke anyways. Austin has changed a lot from back in the Seventies where everybody smoked, even in the grocery stores … After it happened, I think we were worried how it would affect business because a lot of people smoke when they go out to drink. It sort of goes hand in hand. But I don’t think we ever saw that much of a huge difference … The part that I like the most is not having any cigarette ashtrays being everywhere and it stinks. We used to have go and clean up all those ashtrays every day … My mom gripes about the cigarette butts on the ground outside, but we do have cans that say ‘Sit your butts, here.’”

J.T. Travis

“There’s no question that it hurt our business for a good six to eight months after the ordinance went it, but it slowly climbed back and we’re pretty much back to where it was … There’s no question that there was an impact initially simply because you’d always been allowed to smoke in bars and people were accustomed to that. So at first people started grabbing a 12-pack and going home rather than go to a bar and smoke outside in the heat, cold, or whatever. It has however pretty much blown over. Enough time has gone by where people tend to adapt.”

Run into any problems along the way?

Angela Tharp

“At some point, the Health Department became overzealous in their intent to enforce the ban. A few years ago, one evening before the venue was open for business, my staff was cleaning and setting up. My doorman is in charge of cleaning, sweeping, including emptying and cleaning ashtrays, etc. During this process, he brought a dirty ashtray to the inside bar to throw away the contents, and wipe it down. He is not a smoker, nor were rest of staff. He set the ashtray on the bar when he saw an APD officer and health department worker enter the venue (front door was shut, we were closed, but they came in). The worker accused my doorman of having ‘smoking materials’ inside a non-smoking venue and wrote a $500 ticket. There was no smoke, nothing lit, only a dirty ashtray that was the culprit. We tried to fight the ticket but lost!”

J.T. Travis

“If the city got a call from a customer saying that there was smoking going on here, they would send an officer by with a member of the health department. And they had the ability to ticket the customer who was smoking and the bartender on duty. So it became a situation where you don’t want to get fined $200 every time you turned around, so we pretty much had to go with it.”

Ginny White

“We haven’t had any problems with anybody lighting up inside the Broken Spoke. Maybe once, but with somebody who was from a different town who came in and said they don’t know. And we tell them and maybe they get all angry saying ‘That’s so silly’ or that kind of thing. But then they put it out or go outside and smoke.”

What do you think about e-cigarettes?

Joe Ables

“Although we applaud e-cigarette users we prefer that they go outside also. We had complaints, mostly from smokers. We encourage everyone to visit us as we celebrate our 25th year as the only thing smoking now is the music seven nights a week!”

Ginny White

“My mother actually hates them. We’ve gone totally 180 on what we were 10 years about it. It was mostly more of a rights thing, than a ‘Oh, we love cigarettes.’ No she doesn’t allow the e-cigarettes. To me, there’s just as harmful as cigarettes and they do intrude on other people’s personal space if they’re blowing that vapor, flavored or whatever. It’s scented and you can smell it. We’ve had one complaint about somebody doing it in there and we had to tell them to put it out and of course we always have to have this conversation about it’s not illegal for them to have it, but it’s our club and we don’t allow it.”

J.T. Travis

“As far as our particular policy goes, we allow people to use them because it isn’t a cigarette and it’s not releasing smoke or carcinogens in the air. It’s just a mist or vapor. So we allow it in here, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if next time something like this comes up with the city council they would pass an ordinance saying you couldn’t use them either. I’m not sure what the legal issues are on that – I’m no lawyer – but we allow it in here.”

Marcos Canchola

“Because an ordinance has not passed yet, we say to be respectful to other people. If somebody complains, we ask that they take their e-cigarette outside with the smokers. I wouldn’t be opposed to preventing vapor. You never know what’s in those things anyways. I don’t think e-cigarettes are going to be an issue. I don’t think there’s enough of them and plus they’re easy enough to hide. It’s not like cigarettes where they’re overpowering.”

Philip Huang

“There are communities around us that are already ahead. San Marcos doesn’t allow e-cigarettes indoors. Waco passed an ordinance – they don’t allow it. We do hear complaints from citizens and we’re waiting for direction from the city council on that … I know the director of the CDC was asked about e-cigarettes and he said this was an example of where he wanted to see guilty until proven innocent. There were a lot of things that conventional cigarette people said this isn’t that bad and then we learned all these things later and all the health effects. So there are a lot of unknowns but there is growing evidence what is known about that. But no one can say that vaporizing propylene glycol (one of the ingredients in e-cigarettes) is safe or healthy. They advertise it like it’s harmless water vapor, but this is not like the steam in your bathroom. There is certainly more information coming out about it. Many of the major cities – N.Y., Chicago, L.A. – they already have included electronic cigarettes.”

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