Austin @ Large: Austin at Large: Smoke and Mirrors

The real Austin lies between the lines of the smoking ordinance

Austin At Large
Let me confess that I've been a smoker for most of my adult life. (People are surprised by this, just as they're surprised that I follow sports and go to church.) I am suitably ashamed -- the proper attitude with which to approach Austin's proposed smoking ban, up for public hearing (but not a vote) at the City Council tonight. I think it's a dumb idea, a stance many will expect from a lowly and despicable tobacco addict. Even if I were (still) a proud ex-smoker, I'd think this was a dumb idea. But I also think it's a done deal.

The times are propitious for ban proponents, flush from their success in newly smoke-free New York City, and the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition is pouring it on to get Austin's 1994 Smoking in Public Places Ordinance (the "SIPPO") tightened up to create a "100% Smoke-Free Austin." They even have yard signs, and they'll be out in numbers at the council tonight. As, no doubt, will be the club owners and potentates of the Live Music Capital, who surmise -- accurately -- that the proposed ordinance is specifically targeted at bars.

There is no middle ground here; if you support a tougher SIPPO, you're a Nazi, and if you oppose it, you're a barbarian who doesn't care if people die. Actually, there is a middle ground -- the existing smoking ordinance, which in my humble opinion has done a pretty good job of making Austin the Clean Air City that the guy on the airport voice-over talks about with such pride. You have to break a sweat in Austin to find a public place where you can smoke, as we notice when in other locales with looser laws. I was recently in a diner outside Tampa that even at 8am looked and smelled like the Continental Club at last call, and I'm quite glad this is not allowed under current law in Austin.

Proponents of a complete ban decry the SIPPO's 18 exemptions, as if a double-digit number proves it's a worthless sieve of a law. But most of those exemptions are different ways of saying "bar" -- other than drinking houses, you'll encounter secondhand smoke in Austin in bingo parlors and bowling alleys, neither of which are thick on the ground here. (And, of course, in the state Capitol.) The most obvious loophole in the SIPPO -- for restaurants with less than 50 seats -- is almost never used; the only restaurant I can think of where nonsmokers have to suck up exhaust is the Star Seeds Cafe. That is, if there are any nonsmokers at Star Seeds. I can't verify this fact.

Round Rock or Bust

Given this, when Mayor Gus Garcia first rattled the anti-tobacco saber, I was baffled at the gratuitousness and poor timing of the effort. Well, good timing for Garcia -- ending his public career in the smoke wars, rather than kicking it off under this flag like New York's Michael Bloomberg or Round Rock's Nyle Maxwell -- but really bad timing for a city that's even more than usually obsessed with its music industry and its general weirdness. I, too, never thought I'd see the day when an Austin mayor enviously cited Round Rock as a model. Or Dallas, Waco, Longview, and El Paso, all now with stricter smoking bans than Austin, none (except maybe Dallas) with anything close to Austin's live entertainment sector.

The Tobacco-Free Coalition is embarrassed that Austin does not lead Texas on this score, an attitude that in my view gives its game away. Ban fans think a city so concerned about the purity of its groundwater and landscape should likewise want its citizens' bronchi to be as clean as Barton Springs -- and if we're willing to stringently regulate our neighbors to achieve that goal, then a 100% smoke-free Austin should be an easy sell. I think they're right, no matter how much the bar owners stamp their feet and whine. Austin is not nearly as weird as they think it is; our polis is governed not by street-urchin libertarianism but by mommy-state liberalism, not by Huck Finn but by his Aunt Sally aiming to "sivilize" us.

Ban backers loudly protest that this isn't about making smokers quit, though that would be nice; it's simply to protect bar patrons and employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke. I don't believe them. The Continental Club at last call probably is a hazardous workplace, but I'm willing to leave that one up to OSHA. In New York, where everyone smoked everywhere, Bloomberg's similar argument made some sense. In Austin, where bars are the designated smoking area for the whole city, the passive-exposure argument makes me wonder why we don't regulate building heights to protect construction workers and roofers. People can choose to work in dangerous occupations. Even OSHA says so.

Waiting to Exhale

As for the patrons, I was frankly unaware of my constitutional right to go into a bar -- a venue where I'm already exposing myself to the twin hazards of alcohol and loud music -- and demand it be smoke free. For Garcia and his aides, let alone the Tobacco-Free Coalition, to suggest that a stricter SIPPO would be good for clubs suggests they need to get out more. There is no business sector that complains more about how hard it is to make a living. If smoke-free bars attracted more patrons, they would all be smoke free, just as the vast majority of small restaurants (where secondhand smoke really does hurt business) have told patrons to take it outside despite their exemption under the SIPPO.

On the other hand, I know from experience in California, which has no dearth of bars or live music, that club patrons will take it outside if need be. (As long as there is an outside to take it to. I suspect the city will have to allow smoking within 25 feet of club doors, which would be illegal under the draft ordinance.) What patrons won't do is quit smoking, which is what "Tobacco-Free" means, no? Were I on that side of the debate, of course I would go after the bars and try to break the link between smoking, drinking, young people, and good times. But I would also realize that legislating this result is a false accomplishment. A 100% smoking ban might make Aunt Sally Austin feel good in her parlor, but Huck will still light out (and up) for the territory. end story

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smoking ordinance, city council, tobacco, Smoking in Public Places Ordinance, SIPPO, Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition, Continental Club, Star Seeds Café, Gus Garcia, Michael Bloomberg, Nyle Maxwell, Round Rock, Barton Springs, Huck Finn, Aunt Sally, OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Agency

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