Naked City

Here comes the smoking ban

At the first installment of a monthlong series of smoking ban meetings hosted by the Health and Human Services Department, local proprietors, clearly perturbed by the host of newly imposed regulations, inundated health officials with a barrage of sharp-tongued questions and hypothetical enforcement scenarios. Unlike many similarly strict ordinances, citations under Austin's new ban are issued to the owner or manager on duty of the business in which the violation occurs, not to the actual smoker or a combination of the two. Health officials maintained a "we're not the heavy" attitude at the tense meetings, reminding attendees that they didn't write or promote the ordinance and that enforcement would be entirely "complaint driven," promising no smoking surveillance or stings. Meanwhile, Onward Austin, the ban's American Cancer Society-backed author and campaign booster, offered a positive prognosis for the ban's phase-in and subsequent bar and nightclub health. How the ban will actually take shape, however, is anyone's guess.

Shannon Jones, assistant director of HHS' Public Health Division, told me, "We expect a sizable number of complaints in the first 30 days, then we hope for a sizable reduction." At a recent meeting Jones said, "Our goal is not to create problems for owners or vendors, but to enforce the ordinance. If we observe [a violation] and we observe you trying to enforce it, we won't be on you, we're realistic about what's going to happen on September 1." HHS' Robert Wright said, "Food inspectors will be looking for violations during routine daytime inspections," but the ordinance will be "complaint-driven on nights and weekends." Of the department's 24-inspector staff, he said four are available to work outside regular business hours and two full-time inspectors will exclusively follow up on smoking complaints after hours and on weekends. HHS official David Lopez said complaints will be investigated within 72 hours, usually on the following day. Inspectors "have to observe a violation" to issue a citation, Lopez said. If violations persist, fines of up to $2,000 are possible and the city manager can file class C misdemeanor charges and revoke or suspend a business' license or permit. Although there have been conflicting reports, he said the previous ordinance's three strikes policy would be carried over, meaning charges would only be filed after the third violation. "Our goal is to make sure the ordinance isn't unduly burdensome on you, but to make sure it's enforced," Jones told bar owners.

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said illegal indoor smoking calls would fall pretty low on officers' list of priorities. In the event police are summoned, Sheffield said APD would first and foremost seek voluntary compliance, then issue a citation, using arrest as a last resort.

Rodney Ahart, Onward Austin spokesman and government relations director for the American Cancer Society Austin said, "in most other communities with comprehensive smoke-free ordinances, they're pretty self-enforcing," and he's expecting the "smooth transition many other cities have experienced." As for the confusion over the enforcement details, Ahart said, "of course the city will implement and enforce it within reason, but the ordinance is pretty clear on where smoking is allowed and where it isn't." (See p.56 for more on the ban.)

Even before the Mayor and City Council proclaimed September "Support Live Music Month" last Thursday, a broad coalition of businesses and nonprofits were working behind the scenes, developing ways to help ease local bars and clubs into the smoking ban. Along with a giant monthlong marketing blitz encouraging people to "get out and get in on the action," this evening, Sept. 1, two tour buses, carrying musicians, health advocates, and music industry leaders, will be crisscrossing Austin's entertainment districts, drawing attention to the live music scene at a slew of local performances and events. Green hotel Habitat Suites has also offered to rid 14 clubs of their smoky smell, donating its air cleaning machines, deep steam cleaner, and professional cleaning staff to clean up local venues for free, using earth-friendly cleaning products contributed by Eco-Wise, beginning with Tambaleo, Antone's, and the Saxon Pub. On Sunday, Sept. 4, Threadgill's World HQ will host the Live & Kickin benefit concert beginning at 3pm to support the clean-up and publicity efforts. The lineup includes Chaparral, Malford Milligan and David Murray, Natalie Zoe and Mike Cross, Beth Garner, Rob Roy Parnell, and Aaron Hamre.

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