The Austin Chronicle

Onward Austin, Ho!

By Darcie Stevens, April 15, 2005, Music

When Onward Austin – a grassroots coalition that includes the American Cancer Society, the American Heart and Lung associations, and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, among its members – threw up its collective arms during 2003's Smoking Task Force meetings, they immediately decided this wouldn't be the last time concerned citizens heard the words "smoking ban."

In fact, even though Rodney Ahart, the governmental relations director for the American Cancer Society and Onward Austin spokesperson, spent more than a year in meetings with the task force after former Mayor Gus Garcia's June 2003 smoking ban was repealed, he downplays the task force by calling it an ad hoc committee "heavily weighed" in favor of club owners of all stripes. Whereas Keep Austin Free calls the current ordinance a "compromise," Ahart says it's nothing of the sort.

"From the very beginning we knew that we weren't going to have a fair compromise, and I think that the other side came in there pretty much [knowing] what they wanted and where they were going to draw their line in the sand. It was basically to repeal everything that the June 2003 ordinance had."

So Onward Austin hit the bricks just five months after the current ordinance was instated, in attempt to gather 37,764 signatures, 10% of all Austin registered voters at the time. Ahart says they mobilized the volunteer bases from all of the health organizations involved in order to achieve their task. Today, Ahart admits that in addition to these volunteers, Onward Austin paid canvassers to help achieve their goal, a practice he calls common. Additionally, some petition gatherers were paid $1 a signature. This is legal.

When all the signatures were collected, Onward Austin presented its petition to the City Council. After verifying 25% of those signatures – the verification process being something on the par of: "Austin resident? Check. Registered voter? Check. Next!" – the council was forced by city charter to either implement the initiative as written or take it to the people for a vote. The same council that repealed the 2003 ban chose the lesser of two evils.

"I'm not a prohibitionist," Ahart contends. "Tobacco is a legal substance, and I think adults should have the right to smoke or not to smoke. The only time I think there's a difference there is when someone's choice [to smoke] is outweighed over someone's choice not to.

"It's not a major inconvenience to ask someone to step outside to have a cigarette. I think people go out to hear live music, to be with their friends, to have a drink. To ask someone to step out on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes to have a cigarette or to step out on a patio to have a cigarette isn't a big deal for the benefits that everyone receives as a result of not being exposed to secondhand smoke. I really feel that Austin business will be okay."

Herein lies the problem. Many Red River venues have no patios, the proposed ordinance also stating that smoking shall be banned up to 15 feet from any public entrance. Step outside of Beerland to smoke, and 15 feet puts you in the middle of Red River.

Ahart, a third-generation Austinite, wouldn't know that. He says he goes out when he can, but he frequents Fourth Street bars, having "stuck his head" in Beerland once and having never been to Emo's or the rest of Red River for that matter.

Sitting with Ahart, he doesn't quite embody the villain some make him out to be. This is a man whose mantra is "public health." Yet when faced with the question "Is it worth it for a handful of Austin's live music venues to close in order to outlaw smoking?" he's at a loss. After no small amount of stammering, he finally says, "I can't answer that question. But I will say public health is the priority."

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