Where There's Smoke

Dallas considers strengthening the smoking ordinance...again

Thus the restaurant industry simply doesn't understand this latest effort at tightening the smoking ordinance, especially the interest in Carrollton. In 1994, the suburb banned smoking in restaurants, only to back off in 1998 after several establishments lost business and incoming restaurants opted to build in neighboring cities. Carrollton now requires a separate room for smokers and additional air filtration. "Most indoor air-quality engineers say you don't need to enclose a room to prevent smoke from entering the nonsmoking area," Benson says. He points out the progression of local smoking ordinances: Arlington requires a specific room, but no separate filtration. Plano settled on air filtration systems. Irving followed suit, but grandfathered existing restaurants. Fort Worth voted in the most progressive ordinance, according to Benson, requiring a separate wall or air barrier only if ordered by a licensed professional engineer. Otherwise, Cowtown establishments may rely on HVAC or air filtration systems to remove second-hand smoke.

"Filtration systems really do make a difference," Lowery says.

Restaurant designs now almost always call for a strong ventilation system. Al Biernat's claims to move 65 tons of air in the dining room alone. And Consilient's new constructions, such as Sense, opening in the Knox-Henderson area, will have multiple exhaust systems and smoke eaters, rotating air eight times an hour. Even the small Bali Bar features four smoke eaters, causing nonsmoker Joe Humphry, dining out last weekend, to shrug and say, "Whatever restaurants are doing now seems to be OK."

"The restaurant industry does have a point," Cordill acknowledges. "The trend is toward larger no-smoking areas. Still, pushing the industry a little is beneficial."

Beneficial, perhaps, but costly. Air filtration systems cost between $1,500 and $5,000 per unit, and most restaurants require at least two. With maintenance costs running $2,500 or more annually, Dallas establishments should expect to pay at least $15,000 over a five-year period. Or more. Cool River in Las Colinas, for example, shelled out almost $100,000 for its ventilation system. "If it gets too expensive, then the world becomes Bennigan's or Friday's," Hillan complains, "because you can't spend that much on a small place." Building an internal wall to split the sinners from the saints will add another $10,000 or so. "These are old buildings, built in the 1920s," Lowery says of his Lower Greenville location. "I should go into the contracting business." The anti-smoking forces are reluctant to budge, however, viewing cost as a minor issue compared with health.

"You don't want to save lives? You don't want to protect health? What part of this don't you want?" asks Harding.

In the May 13 meeting of the Environmental Health Commission, members plan to discuss the cost of any proposed change in the ordinance. "The argument against a new ordinance is the expense of ventilation and structural changes," Cordill says. "The commission thought about applying any new regulations to new restaurants immediately and to current restaurants over a period of time. We're also looking at a 50-seat exemption." Reaching a compromise among interest groups, however, may be difficult.

"The Greater Dallas Restaurant Association wants no change," Harding says, "and we want 100 percent smoke-free restaurants."

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