Monday, August 29, 2005

It's last call for smokers

At 12:01 a.m. Thursday, city's ban will apply to almost all establishments.
Across Austin this week — and just outside it — restaurants and bars, bowling alleys and pool halls are bracing for the impact of the smoking ban that voters narrowly approved in May.
"We are going to do our best to obey the spirit of the law," said Joseph Tait, the owner of Lovejoy's Tap Room and Brewery, a downtown bar.
He said he would post no-smoking signs and remove ashtrays. At a staff meeting Wednesday, he instructed workers to ask patrons who light up to put out their cigarettes; if they persist, they won't be served; if they get belligerent, the staff will call 911.
However, the National Restaurant Association, in a 2004 study partly funded by the Philip Morris company, found that restaurant sales decline significantly when counties implement 100 percent smoking bans in dining and bar areas.
The Austin ban, which passed in May with 51.8 percent of the vote, extends current smoking restrictions to about 225 establishments. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a fascistic exercise or a sensible public health maneuver.
The current rules, which took effect in June 2004, say that only bars and restaurants that make most of their revenue from alcohol or have separate smoking sections can allow smoking. Pool halls and bowling alleys also can allow smoking.
Of Austin's 5,000 or so establishments that serve food and drink, 219 had received special permits that allowed smoking, according to David Lurie, director of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department. On Thursday, the smoking permits will become worthless.
"We're not going to be patrolling the streets," Lurie said. The process will be "complaint-driven" by calls to the environmental and consumer health services line, 972-5600. He said people should not call 911 to report smoking violations.
"As we get complaints we'll be reviewing those," Lurie said. "If we have patterns of noncompliance, we'll take further action."
He said establishments and proprietors are more likely to be the subject of enforcement action than individual smokers. Since June 2004, 126 citizen complaints and 51 cases of misdemeanor ordinance violations (involving signage, permitting or use of ashtrays) have been filed with the Municipal Court. Nineteen of those cases have been resolved, with fines totaling about $7,700.
About the only places left for smokers are bingo halls and fraternal organizations, which were left off the ballot, and a handful of restaurants whose permits were grandfathered in because of their special filtration systems.
At the Iron Cactus in North Austin, one of the grandfathered restaurants, General Manager Chris Donner has been putting up signs letting people know the restaurant is exempt from the smoking ban and has told bartenders and the wait staff to clue in customers.
"You see a little bell go off in their heads," he said. "We're hoping to see a lot of smokers line up to take a smoke or get a drink."
Some people worried that banning smoking would change the very nature of live music in Austin.
Keep Austin Free is not ready to stub out its butts just yet. Marc Levin, a lawyer for the group, said it might file a suit. (A challenge to the ballot measure by the same group was dismissed in the spring by a federal judge.)
"We're definitely taking a look at some legal action," he said. "There's no necessity to do something before Sept. 1, but many businesses may close down before legal relief comes."
On Thursday, the mayor declared September to be Support Austin's Nightlife Month. It might be the one thing all sides can agree on.
Smoke here
The current city smoking ordinance permits smoking in bars and some restaurants. The smoking ban that will go into effect on Thursday restricts smoking to bingo halls, fraternal organizations and only this handful of Austin restaurants that have special filtration systems:
IHOP No. 1421, 707 E. Cesar Chavez St.
Trudy's, 8820 Burnet Road
Bennigan's, 13995 U.S. 183 North
Cool River, 4001 West Parmer Lane
Hooters, 13701 U.S. 183 North
Shoal Creek Saloon, 909 N. Lamar Blvd.
Trudy's, 4141 Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360)
Iron Cactus, 10001 Stonelake Blvd.
The health department will investigate all complaints and issue a citation only after the third offense, said Bob Flocke, a spokesman for the city's health and human services department. The establishment, not the smoker, will face a fine of up to $2,000 for noncompliance.