Lighters out

An expanded San Antonio smoking ban continued its deceptively quiet creep toward Council Monday, with a two-to-one vote at the Quality of Life Committee meeting, where District 5 Councilman David Medina and District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor supported the draft ordinance. As currently written, it would prohibit smoking not only in virtually all restaurants, bars, pool and billiard halls, and nightclubs, but would also outlaw lighting up in City-owned parks, on the River Walk, at San Antonio landmarks such as the Zoo and Alamo Plaza, within 20 feet of bus stops, and in public service lines for e.g. ATMs and tickets.

District 3’s Jennifer Ramos opposed the measure, and complained bitterly that there was no substantive discussion or modification of the ordinance before they passed it along. “Everyone says ‘overall, overall,’” she said, referring to studies that argue smoking bans don’t reduce business. “Maybe that’s true,” but she worries about small-business profit margins and neighborhood bars that can’t push their smoking clientele outdoors. “Those are the kinds of bars and restaurants in my neighborhood,” she said. “They abut houses,” and moving customers outside is “just moving the problem around.”

Close to 30 individuals and group representatives spoke before the committee — a majority of them in support of the ban. There were few surprises in the testimony: Outgoing LULAC President Rosa Rosales railed against it again, her voice rising as she accused the ordinance of discriminating against Latinos and working-class people because it makes exceptions for retail cigar outlets and private clubs such as VFW halls (the QueQue doesn’t think that the VFW is a good example of discriminating against working-class Latinos; pues, no one asked us). Southside political operative JoAnn Ramon called each committee member by first name and assured them that she’d been canvassing the businesses in their district and “they’re all hurt, they’re all concerned.” But Greater Chamber of Commerce President Richard Perez told the Council that their membership heavily favors the ban, and Martini Club owner and musical impresario Wayne Harper said his weekend business improved after health problems related to secondhand smoke forced him to curtail smoking in his own bar.

Dr. Bryan Alsip, assistant director of health for the Metropolitan Health District, introduced additional data in his presentation, including a 2000 California study that showed workplace bans decrease individual smoking, and two recent peer-reviewed studies that found smoking bans reduce hospital admissions for acute secondhand-smoke-related symptoms such as heart attacks and angina. Tooling around for research on the internets, the QueQue also came across similar surveys in America and New Zealand that found a notable decrease in heart attacks following the enactment of smoking bans.

Taylor and Medina each acknowledged the concerns of the small business owners who spoke against the ban, but said they were ultimately swayed by the health data. In a rebuttal to Rosales and the newly ginned-up Save Our Jobs coalition, Taylor noted that she was especially moved by the unequal toll that smoking-related illnesses take on minority populations. “I think this is just another step in the right direction for San Antonio.” Medina said.

Councilman John Clamp of District 10 sat in on the Committee hearings, but came away unconvinced. “It was all a dog and pony show,” Clamp said. “It’s unfortunate Quality of Life did not discuss the issue in detail.” He said his goal, “to keep government out of small-business life,” has not changed, and he’s working on building a coalition of six to support a compromise. A smoking ban is probably inevitable, he says, but he’d like the City to phase it in to give businesses time to adjust to the new rules and for the San Antonio Restaurant Association and other supporters of a statewide ban to lobby the Lege.

Assistant City Manager Sharon de la Garza told the Current last week that the indoor ban is not up for compromise because the City wants to be recognized as smoke-free by the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. To do so, it must ban smoking in restaurants and bars, as well as municipal and private workplaces (done). But at Monday’s meeting, Ramos raised the hope that San Antonio could adopt a permit system like Austin’s that would allow it to grandfather in smoking establishments while outlawing future ones. Austin’s current ordinance no longer allows smoking permits, so it’s considered smoke-free, Alsip told Ramos, but because San Antonio doesn’t have a permit system in place, if it instituted one as part of a new ordinance, it wouldn’t qualify.

Why do we care if some lobbying organization out of Berkeley, California, recognizes us as smoke-free? For starters, a list of some 30 organizations, such as the American Public Health Association (no surprise there, we guess) that won’t bring their conventions to our tourism-invested shores if we’re not. Dr. Alsip said it’s also increasingly a factor that companies looking to relocate take into account when evaluating the potential workforce.

In a conversation with the QueQue Tuesday, Dr. Alsip reiterated the modern medical wisdom that no level of secondhand smoke is safe. “People don’t make the connection, because there’s a latency period” between exposure and the onset of symptoms, he said, and there may be an even longer latency period when the secondhand smoke we breathe is drifting on an outdoor breeze or curling about our River Walk patios like poetry.

By our reckoning, that’s part of the reason the Mayor will have to bargain to get his majority, and comments he made to the Express-News this week indicate he’s likely willing to compromise on at least some portions of the proposed outdoor ban. Doing so might secure the vote of Mary Alice Cisneros, whose District 1 includes River Walk businesses, and of Reed Williams, District 8’s smoking-ban swing voter who listened in at Monday’s committee meeting. Government should butt out when it doesn’t have a clear mandate, Williams says, but “the mandate here is workplace safety,” and “the facts do show that secondhand smoke is a danger inside.” He’s unconvinced that secondhand smoke is anything more than an irritant in the great outdoors, however. “What we have is a staff proposal which is very extensive and overreaching,” he said. Like Clamp, he is also concerned about the effect of what he called the Mayor’s “aggressive timeframe” on small businesses. “I think having a period of time to adjust in this economy is important.”

The ordinance is scheduled to go before Council August 19. The Mayor’s office did not return calls seeking comment.