Some Austinites call smoking a personal freedom; others believe it violates their personal freedoms. National health officials view tobacco use as an epidemic, responsible for 5 million deaths a year worldwide. Wherever you stand, on the May 7 ballot, you will have the power to decide whether smoking should henceforth be allowed, or banned, in Austin's bars and clubs.
On Monday, City Clerk Shirley Brown's office certified that enough petition signatures were submitted by local group Onward Austin, in support of a far stricter smoking ordinance, to place the measure on the upcoming ballot. The new ordinance would outlaw smoking in nearly all public places including bars, restaurants, nightclubs, live music venues, pool halls, and bowling alleys. Onward Austin, the ad hoc organization pushing for the changes (with support from the American Cancer Society, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, and several other nonprofits) successfully delivered the 36,764 signatures required under the city charter to bring the issue to voters. The group worked until Feb. 22 to provide additional names, after Brown found their original Feb. 1 filing was short 50 signatures of eligible Austin voters. Onward Austin's Rodney Ahart said the group turned in about 4,500 additional names after internally reviewing some 8,000 officially re-igniting what Ahart calls a "volatile and polarizing" smoking ban debate.
Indeed, Austin's original smoking ordinance sponsored by former Mayor Gus Garcia and approved just before he left office in 2003 drew intense public scrutiny, primarily from Downtown club business owners. It was weakened after the 2003 election of dissenters Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken, losing its toughest restrictions before it took effect. The current ordinance prohibits smoking in establishments that make less than 70% of their revenue from alcohol sales, and requires bars and similar venues to obtain a $300 annual city smoking permit. The ordinance came into effect in June of 2004, but the controversy hasn't cleared.
"It's a good thing for the public to have the opportunity to decide this," McCracken said last week. The council member most publicly opposed to the original ban's scope, McCracken was central in revising the ordinance into its present form. He said, "The current ordinance successfully provides a strong majority of locations that are smoke-free a bar is a place where you get to have your vices."
The Downtown brewery and taproom, Lovejoy's where the slogan is "Celebrate your vices" is among 25 watering holes listed as members of Keep Austin Free, a coalition of businesses opposed to the smoking ban. Owner Chip Tait said he believes the ordinance will drive many bars out of business. "Places like Antone's and [the] Hard Rock Cafe will survive little joints like Lovejoy's and the Horseshoe Lounge will take it in the ass." Clubs that don't have a patio or an option for outdoor seating, Tait believes, will ultimately suffer and fail, detracting from Austin's crop of original "organic local businesses." Tait doesn't mince words. "It's not up to the American Cancer Society or Lance Motherfucking Armstrong," he said, "to tell me how to run my business."
But Armstrong can tell the voters a thing or two about cancer. So can Onward Austin's Ahart, who is also government relations director for the American Cancer Society in Austin. "Secondhand smoke is harmful to public health. In passing a strong smoke-free ordinance, you enhance Austin's quality of life and improve Austin's overall health," Ahart said. He points to places like New York City, Boston, and El Paso, which have all enacted similarly broad smoking bans. Ahart cited studies conducted one year after the bans took effect, each finding no negative economic effects.
Recently, The New York Times also reported that the effects of NYC's smoking ban were less severe than many expected. Statistically, the Times cited positive economic indicators for restaurants and bars, including increased employment, an 8.7% increase in tax receipts since the ban was enacted in March of 2003, and a greater number of permits requested and held in the year since the ban took effect. As for Austin, said Ahart, "live music will be a primary concern. People go to hear a performer because they like their music and talent. We believe they will continue to do so." Overall, Ahart believes the ordinance will be "positive for businesses and good for the city."
Keep Austin Free spokesman Paul Silver, owner of 219 West Lounge and Restaurant, bluntly rejects Ahart's optimism about economic effects. He says the economic impact studies largely obscure economic effects by lumping every kind of food and beverage operation together, failing to separate family restaurants and chains from independent bars and music venues that are least able to overcome a drop in revenue. "We anticipate significant economic impact on Austin bars if the ban is passed," he said. At press time, several bar owners had sued the city in federal court in hopes of stopping the vote.
The economic impact argument however valid it may be is an inevitable talking point in the tobacco industry's decades-long campaign to subvert smoking bans. Americans for Nonsmokers Rights' Web site posts an internal Philip Morris memo (www.no-smoke.org/htmlpage.php?id=63) detailing 1994 plans to attack smoking bans with similar rhetoric, as well as other calculated tobacco strategies to fight anti-smoking efforts. But the economic stability of small local businesses will no doubt remain a central arena in the upcoming campaigns for and against the proposed ordinance the specific language for which will need to be determined by the City Council. For more info, see www.keepaustinfree2005.com and www.onwardaustin.org.
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