Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

The Smoke Clears: No Tickee, No Tobacky -- Annoying, Insulting, and a Stroke of Genius

Austin At Large
I was out of town last week, and nothing much happened. This is good, because often when I leave town, bad news breaks out -- like the Oklahoma bombing or the Luby's massacre or the A&M Bonfire collapse or the entire First Gulf War. (All true, I swear. And when I leave a town for good, the news gets even worse -- my former hometowns form a litany of modern American disaster, including the current California firestorms.) This time, rather, I come home to the same stories I left -- indeed, the same stories we've been writing about for months. The plague of big-box sprawl. The Mala Sangre mess. The Owens shooting. And feuding between Lloyd Doggett and Gonzalo Barrientos (well, okay, we haven't been writing about that for months, but it is definitely what you'd call old news).

And, look! The smoking ordinance! As I write, the City Council plans on Thursday to repeal and replace the near-total ban it adopted in May but has yet to implement, with the why-didn't-they-think-of-this-before Plan B -- allowing/ requiring bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys to obtain smoking permits from the city health department. No tickee, no smokee. Otherwise, Plan B is similar to the 1994 rules currently in effect -- no smoking in any public indoor place, or on patios or within 15 feet of entrances, with exemptions for fraternal organizations, private rooms of various kinds, and the occasional taxicab.

The Odor of Democracy

Really, only the requirements on bars and clubs (and a handful of small restaurants) are going to change, which drives home the point that the tumultuous effort to "tighten" the 1994 ordinance has been specifically targeted at the clubs, which is why it's so revolting as a matter of public policy. Please feel free to refrain from writing me letters telling me how bad secondhand smoke is. I know this. But I also know that every night of the week in this town, thousands of people choose to expose themselves to environmental tobacco smoke in the bars and clubs of the Live Music Capital. Last I checked, Austin was actually proud of this fact -- that's kind of implicit in the Capital-of-the-World business.

Those people spend money that the city -- if it truly is so damned concerned about its sales tax that opposing Wal-Mart is an act of heresy -- can ill afford to kiss away. And those are the only people who are going to be affected by this ordinance -- the people who want a smoking ban are rarely, if ever, exposed to secondhand smoke against their will. Go to any city with less stringent smoking rules than Austin -- like Chicago, where I was last week -- and you'll see what I mean. (An exception, and I acknowledge it's an important one, is the musicians themselves. I'm willing to buy the bar owners' argument that most of their employees smoke, and that the ones who don't would rather be employed than undefiled.) Obviously, the anti-tobacco lobby should direct its energies to changing the behavior of the smokers in Clubland and their enablers who own the bars. Nobody said this was an easy task. It's much easier to ram bad laws down the clubs' throats, airily dismiss the economic consequences as somebody else's problem, turn thousands of people into criminals overnight, declare victory, and move on to the next town.

Until way too late in this eight-month-long saga, the anti-tobacco forces -- oblivious to the ways in which Austin really is different from other jurisdictions with total bans -- completely controlled the debate and the agenda. Even the new Plan B, with its requirement that bars pay a modest smoking tax ($100 a year) and get an annual permit to do business as they do now without constraint, is a solution to a "crisis" that didn't exist this time last year, before the Tobacco-Frees went on their public jihad, and an insulting burden to impose on the music scene at precisely the moment Austin wants to proclaim the scene's value from the City Hall rooftops.

One Breath of Fresh Air?

Yes, there are also thousands who say they'd like to hit the clubs but the smoke drives them away. If this were true, then the market should meet that need, and the Plan B ordinance's requirement that smoking-permit-holding venues offer two hours a week of smoke-free live music should give that thesis a sufficient test. But call me weird, but I suspect that if tobacco smoke is stunting the growth of Austin's music scene, it's not because we allow smoking in bars; it's because we do so little to support any alternative means of making a living as a musician. We speak of the two as if they were one, but in fact, the live entertainment industry and the Austin music scene are separate entities. The enforced dependence of musicians on smoky bars and clubs, where even the second coming of Jesus would only be a hit if He boosted the bar tab, is a failure of our cultural and economic policy, not of our public-health policy. Perhaps the city's new cultural czar, whoever it is, can jump on this action item. Perhaps this is more important than building the Long Center. Or perhaps this is why building the Long Center is so important.

As usually happens with City Hall compromises, Plan B will truly please nobody -- the anti-tobacco forces want indoor smoking banned, period, and the anti-ban forces (that is, the bar and club owners) can hardly be thrilled about adding another mandated encounter with the city bureaucracy to their entrepreneurial to-do lists. The anti-ban "Stakeholders' Coalition" report of the City Council's smoking task force, though filled with ample detail and suggestions for revising the ordinance, makes no mention of a permitting system. That report also took issue with the city's customary and arbitrary division of "bars" and "restaurants" based on percentage of alcohol sales, but that distinction is preserved in the new draft ordinance -- only "bars" can apply for an "unrestricted" smoking permit. "Restaurants" have to have separately ventilated designated smoking areas. (Many already do, because of the requirements of the 1994 ordinance.)

No matter, because this baby is going to pass -- three of the four anti-ban votes on the City Council (Wynn, Goodman, and McCracken) are listed as sponsors, and all seven of 'em are really, really ready to make this issue go away. And so am I. But perhaps Plan B is a work of public policy genius, in that it will leave both sides so annoyed as to motivate change. Perhaps a smoking permit is just enough of a pain in the butt to make smoke-free shows, or shows in venues other than bars, more commonplace. And perhaps the spectacle of flagrant public smoking will drive the tobacco-free forces where they should have gone in the first place -- toward the ballot box. end story

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Smoking ordinance, Tobacco Free Coalition, stakeholders coalition, Live Music Capital, music scene, bars and clubs

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