Where There's Smoke

Dallas considers strengthening the smoking ordinance...again

The old television series M*A*S*H ran through about 4 billion episodes, each with the same story line--war bad, wisecracking disdain for authority good--before viewers tired of the show. Ah-nold earned fame by uttering "I'll be back," a singular tribute to our appreciation of redundancy. Even General Douglas MacArthur understood America's love for the sequel, the show that never ends. And you'd know that if you interpreted his "I shall return" promise correctly.

Well, the Dallas City Council clearly appreciated a good sequel, returning once again to the issue of smoking in city restaurants. In January, Councilwoman Lois Finkelman, chair of the council's Health, Environment and Human Services Committee, asked the Environmental Health Commission to work up a more stringent smoking ordinance. This comes despite the fact that only about 25 percent of Texas residents regularly light up, most fast-food chains already ban tobacco smoke from their establishments and Dallas-area restaurants currently average a 70-30 split between designated nonsmoking and smoking sections. Indeed, Al Biernat, owner of--and this may come as a shock--Al Biernat's, claims that 95 percent of his customers ask for nonsmoking tables. "It just hasn't been an issue," says Ken Benson, a public affairs consultant representing the hospitality industry.

At the same time, however, it's a perennial favorite. A recommendation to strengthen the smoking ordinance, which calls for a mere 4-foot separation between smoking and nonsmoking sections of restaurants, died in 1994 when then committee chair, Larry Duncan, effectively tabled the issue. Four years later the Environmental Health Commission, an appointed citizens group, failed to reach a consensus when asked to examine the ordinance, and the issue never even reached the committee. Last year, an effort on the state level to ban smoking in public spaces died a quick and quiet death.

This year, according to Anne Harding, government relations director of the American Cancer Society's Dallas region, several members of the Health, Environment and Human Services Committee spoke favorably of a new ordinance. And the Environmental Health Commission, with only two meetings remaining before it issues its recommendation in August, is considering a plan that, in the words of Greg Kalina, vice president of operations for Consilient Restaurants, "would radically change the face of restaurants as we know them."

"They are looking at strengthening the nonsmoking areas of restaurants to make them smoke-free, similar to Carrollton," explains Anita Cordill, assistant director of Environmental Health Services for the city. "It probably doesn't require changes to a lot of restaurants, but it will probably require a barrier."

By barrier, she means a wall, floor to ceiling, separating the sections--perhaps with additional ventilation. This, of course, belies her statement dismissing the necessary changes to Dallas restaurants, particularly those with open floor plans or narrow spaces. Restaurateurs, of course, just don't see the need for massive intervention. "At lunch time, for more seating, we do an entirely no-smoking dining room," says Matt Mortimer, regional manager of Blue Goose. "It's never been an issue either way. I don't know if I've ever seen more than three or four cigarettes going at one time in my smoking section." The city received fewer than 30 complaints about the smoking ordinance in 1999, and most of those were in regard to the workplace.

"I don't feel a public need for it," says Jordan Lowery, manager of Firehouse.

Indeed, Cordill admits that she's unsure what prompted this current effort. And Councilman James Fantroy, a member of the Health, Environment and Human Services Committee, could not recall discussions initiating the move. (Finkelman was unavailable for comment.) Yet anti-smoking advocates describe clear and urgent reasons for the current move to toughen regulations. "We are trying to protect as many people as possible," Harding points out, "and the most effective way to do that is through government policy."

Everyone knows cigarettes kill. Well, not everyone. Studies confirm that smokers tend to be less educated than nonsmokers, so the message might not sink in. For the record, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that tobacco use kills more Americans annually than alcohol, cocaine, heroin, homicide, suicide, fires, auto accidents and AIDS combined--around 500,000 each year. One wonders why Hollywood action thrillers overlook the dangerous world of cigarettes and settle on tamer themes like murder and mayhem. But research concerning second-hand smoke--the issue affecting restaurants--generates little beyond partisan bickering. The Environmental Protection Agency kicked off a spurt of anti-smoking regulation nationwide when it declared second-hand smoke a class A carcinogen in 1993. "That's something I can't dismiss lightly," Harding says. Yet five years later a federal court struck down the EPA judgment, pointing out that the agency reached its conclusion before conducting research and then altered the data to confirm its conclusion. The World Health Organization at the same time found no statistically significant health risk from exhaled tobacco smoke.

"If second-hand smoke kills, I'll die from it," scoffs Greg Hillan, general partner of Greenville Bar & Grill. "I'm sure it's harmful, but in my mind it's not a big issue. If you want to control all of the environments you're in, stay at home."

Second-hand smoke contains some 4,000 chemicals, including traces of cyanide, benzene and arsenic, but the danger of limited exposure remains uncertain. Even many anti-smoking advocates admit brief encounters with drifting smoke create little more than an increase in business for dry cleaners. "You would probably have to have a higher level of exposure to get lung cancer, but depending on the individual, any amount could be harmful," Harding says.

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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