Cloudy Issue
Mark Andresen

Cloudy Issue

When German scientists discovered a direct link between smoking and cancer many years ago, anti-smoking advocate Adolf Hitler was determined to ban cigarettes from the Third Reich. Yet even Hitler, an absolute dictator willing to murder millions, couldn't pass anti-smoking laws. What hope, then, does state Rep. Glen Maxey have of pushing a bill through the Texas Legislature barring cigarettes, cigars, and pipes from Texas restaurants?

"It's a tough issue," says John Blair of House Bill 290, Maxey's anti-smoking bill. If Blair weren't just some guy sitting in Humperdink's trying to negotiate a second or third 22-ounce beer, he'd sound like a politician. "I've been in restaurants where someone is smoking at the table next to me and it is an irritant. But to say they can't smoke, well, it's a bit much."

John Harris, another guy in another restaurant, tends to agree. "I really think that it should be up to the restaurant owners or managers," he says. "If you have more people who don't prefer to smoke, fine. But you'll alienate one side or the other."


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Both men smoke, by the way, and both men sense that, either way, the proposal will trample on someone's rights. But Blair and Harris needn't worry about the issue's complexities. Nor should they fret over anything as antiquated as rights, fairness, or a public voice. This issue is best left up to special interest groups wielding studies and surveys and examples that--surprisingly--confirm their own particular point of view.

The bill in question would prohibit smoking in restaurants that derive at least 75 percent of their revenue from food and beverages--excluding alcohol--sold for on-premises consumption. "It's about the right thing to do," explains Brent Biggs, a legislative director in Maxey's office. "It's for the people of Texas and the health of our children."

According to the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cigarette smoking accounts for 85 percent of lung and bronchial cancer. A 1986 surgeon general's report found that secondhand smoke, known in the industry as environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) doubles the risk of lung cancer in nonsmoking spouses. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies ETS as a human carcinogen.

"Hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done, and all of them say ETS is a toxic substance," claims Anne Harding, government relations director for the American Cancer Society's Dallas office. "The misconception is that it's smelly but not dangerous. In fact, it's got a chemical makeup that should scare anyone." Secondhand smoke contains roughly 4,000 chemicals, including traces of benzene, arsenic, and cyanide. Pack enough secondhand smoke into a Scud missile and Saddam Hussein could fire off a pretty potent weapon of mass destruction.

Yet hard numbers on ETS-related deaths remain difficult to pin down. Both the American Cancer Society and the Office of Tobacco Prevention and Control at the Texas Department of Health cite a figure of 53,000 annual deaths related to the secondhand stuff. The EPA estimates that ETS causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths each year. The former figure, from a study by the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health, seems suspiciously well-suited for comparison against combat deaths in Vietnam--a pointless PR effort in an age with no good TV shows or video games set in Southeast Asia, the only way anyone learns a damn thing about history these days.

"Our association feels it's apparent that the ultimate goal of the nonsmoking movement is to make smoking socially unacceptable," says Alison Hovanec, spokeswoman for the Texas Restaurant Association, defending the social acceptability and beauty of yellowed teeth--and countering the data presented by the cancer society and others. "To this date no study shows that short-term exposure to secondhand smoke in quantities found in nonsmoking areas of restaurants poses health risks." Indeed, the statistics cited by the various organizations include such hedging language as "estimate," "could," and "approximately." The 1986 surgeon general's report described a doubling of lung cancer for nonsmoking spouses of heavy smokers. Lung cancer rates in California dropped 14 percent since that state initiated a comprehensive anti-smoking program a decade ago. "What you'll hear from the opposition is that there's no proof," says the cancer society's Harding, "but they're not looking at reality."

Restaurateurs fear that a smoking ban would harm their business. "The bill allows smoking at bars," says Hovanec, "which places establishments just serving food at a competitive disadvantage." Restaurant association members in Lubbock project that a smoking ban would lop off up to 40 percent of their business.

Naturally, the anti-tobacco forces dispute such claims. "The restaurant association is in the business of accommodating people," Harding responds. "I think their big fear is that they will alienate a portion of their clientele and business will suffer." A cancer study, however, suggests that only 23 percent of Texans smoke. "Is there ever a wait for smoking sections?" asks Biggs, who questions the TRA's opposition to Maxey's bill. "It's weird because when you look at studies, there is only a positive economic impact, not a negative," he says of smoking bans and their effects on restaurants.

More than 840 communities nationwide impose full or partial smoking bans on restaurants. Local governments in Texas approved more than 200 tobacco-related ordinances. Dallas requires restaurants seating more than 50 people to maintain nonsmoking areas with at least four feet between smoking and nonsmoking sections. Addison demands designated areas as well. Plano and Arlington prohibit smoking in restaurants unless the establishments install ventilation systems or construct a wall between sections. "Smoking ordinances are basically local issues," Marcus Cooper, spokesman for the Texas Department of Health, points out, rather unnecessarily. Carrollton does not allow smoking in restaurants. Carrollton restricts alcohol as well. Of course, Carrollton also prohibits good restaurants--either that or tobacco and alcohol bans actually affect the restaurant trade.

Maxey's office, however, points to an assessment of clean indoor air ordinances in Arlington and Wichita Falls. The two cities enacted similar laws in 1994 and 1995, respectively. The study concludes that "implementation of clean indoor air ordinances...appear to have no detrimental effect on the restaurant economy in those cities. The results of these analyses serve to further validate previous reports, adding to the growing body of public health evidence in support of strong clean indoor air ordinances."

The report's authors, employees of the tobacco prevention arm of the state health department, do not note that the two ordinances coincide with a booming economy. More people ate outside the home during the second half of the 1990s than ever before. The authors were particularly impressed by increased restaurant sales in Arlington during the second and third quarters, 1994 through 1997. Baseball season, in other words. "Yes, there are a lot of variables," Harding admits, "but if smoking bans had negatively affected business you'd see it." Apparently Harding doesn't hang out in Carrollton. Total restaurant sales increased steadily in Wichita Falls for eight years prior to the ordinance, but the food industry's share of retail sales in that city actually dropped after the new rules went into effect.

Additional confusion stems from the fact that bars and restaurants exist both as entertainment venues and workplaces. Most offices ban smoking. A majority of Dallas residents polled by the cancer society support no-smoking rules for the workplace. But waitstaff and bartenders encounter ETS every single workday. The CDC estimates (that word again) that smoking costs us $50 billion a year in health care costs. Maxey's office points out that many restaurants do not provide health insurance. "Who's going to take care of them?" asks Biggs, referring to the long-suffering waitperson.

The Austin Democrat's bill is stalled in committee. "We have high hopes for the bill," Harding says. "But we've already spoken about the next legislative session if it doesn't pass."

Everyone knows that secondhand smoke carries a nasty mix of chemicals, and that prolonged exposure potentially causes all kinds of awful things. But will one visit a week to a restaurant really kill someone? Will an eight-hour shift in a nonsmoking section irreparably harm an otherwise healthy employee? Will some restaurants benefit from the bill while others suffer a drop in profits? Well, the answers depend on whom you speak to.


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