Wednesday, October 12, 2005

You may soon be able to smoke at the bars again

A federal judge could decide Wednesday whether to temporarily invalidate part or all of the citywide smoking ban that took effect Sept. 1.
The ordinance prohibits smoking in Austin bars, restaurants and live music venues.

A group of bar and restaurant owners has sued the city, arguing, among other things, that the ban violates their constitutional rights relating to property and individual freedom. District Judge Sam Sparkswill decide whether to lift the ban while the lawsuit goes forward.
Even if the bar owners don't get their way, their testimony Tuesday revealed some embarrassing problems with the two-month-old ban.
Several bar owners said they've seen huge drops in revenue and have gotten no clear direction from city health officials about how to enforce the ban. A few bar owners hinted that they're defying the ban altogether.
Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter said the city is interpreting the ban reasonably and has made every effort to help bars comply. Advocates for smoke-free venues say it's common for revenue to drop off initially when smoking bans begin but that revenue rebounds.
Bill Hardee, longtime owner of the Warehouse Saloon in South Austin, said that before the ban, 85 percent of his customers smoked. He said his liquor sales in September dropped 7 percent, and his revenue from billiards dropped 20 percent.
Carter asked Hardee whether he's tried to market to nonsmokers; Hardee retorted that he's not making enough money to advertise.
Asher Garber, owner of Room 710 downtown, said all the ban has done is dirty up sidewalks with cigarette butts and drive customers to bars with patios, where smokers can still light up.
And Sheena Semmler, a bartender at the Canary Hut Pub in North Austin, said she's considering selling her home because her tips are down 60 percent.
Lovejoy's bartender Leslie Jafarace said the ban has unfairly placed the burden on bar workers, not city officials, to stop smokers, who can become irate when told to snuff out.
"My job's hard enough. I don't need to be wrestling cigarettes out of people's hands," she said.
The ban requires bar owners to post no-smoking signs, remove ashtrays and tell patrons who start smoking to stop. If patrons refuse to comply, the city wants bar owners to handle the situation as they see fit: refuse to serve them, kick them out or call the police.
Enforcement is complaint-driven, and city inspectors have a few days to check out a bar. The inspectors must issue two lower-level violations — similar to warnings — before they can write a formal citation or take a bar owner to court.
So far the city has received only 49 complaints, according to David Lurie, director of Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services. None has risen to the level of a formal citation, he said.
Beerland owner Randall Stockton said he's gotten mixed messages about how to enforce the ban.
He said he was initially told to call police or 911, then told not to. He said that he's resorted to telling patrons that he's required to tell them not to smoke, but he said that some still light up.
Carter indicated that at least a few bars, including strip club the Yellow Rose, are brazenly defying the ban.
City inspectors have issued two "notices of violation" at that North Austin club, one for finding cigarette butts in a drinking cup in the trash, another for finding cigarette butts in empty candleholders.
Yellow Rose manager Tom West said he plans to leave the empty candleholders on tables because they're decorative. He said he still isn't sure whether the city considers those holders "smoking accessories," which are prohibited under the ban.