Restaurant Reviews

Is Expanding the Dallas Smoking Ordinance a Commie Plot?

It might seem that the battle lines between those supporting the expansion of the Dallas smoking ban to bars, taverns and pool halls would be clearly drawn: nonsmokers versus smokers and those who own bars, taverns and pool halls. But things at City Hall are seldom that easy. Instead, Dallas City Council members are voicing the concerns of public health advocates on the one hand, and property rights advocates and the bad-for-business bunch on the other.

Although the council is scheduled to vote on the ban on December 10, members have been quite public about their feelings in the run-up to the vote.

Mayor Tom Leppert actually took a stance on the issue during his campaign in 2007, endorsing the notion that the city's current smoking ordinance, which had been in place since 2003 and banned smoking in restaurants, bingo halls and most public buildings, needed to be expanded. In a June 17 Dallas Morning News article, Leppert suggested that the council was ready to move forward on a more extensive citywide smoking ban. A formal ordinance proposal would be drafted and presented to the council's quality of life and government services committee by August, council member Pauline Medrano told the News.

Advocacy groups lobbied council members for months, but it wasn't until a November 5 meeting that the council created a City Smoking Ordinance Special Ad-Hoc Committee to sift through the thorny legal issues presented by the ban and to draft a final ordinance for full council consideration. There seemed little support for banning smoking in tobacco shops and little controversy about banning smoking within 15 feet of the entrance to a public building. Although the committee took a straw poll and four out of five of its members present supported a bar, tavern and pool hall ban, it became clear in the aftermath of the vote that some council members were less ready to move forward than the mayor had previously indicated.

"My whole thing is rights, property rights," council member Sheffie Kadane says. "I am not for breaking the law, but there is no law against smoking."

At the November 17 committee meeting, Kadane, who is not on the committee, expressed his position by offering an example of a hypothetical business owner who, under the ordinance, couldn't have a separate smoking room on the 50th floor of his own building. "That's communistic," he said, to much applause and cheering.

Council member Angela Hunt, clearly aligning herself with public health advocates, said she doesn't care if smokers want to kill themselves. But "what they don't have the right to do is push that smoke down my lungs." Her words were also greeted with applause.

Hunt was familiar with the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report titled The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke, which concludes that "exposure of adults to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and causes coronary heart disease and lung cancer." The report seems adamant that the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from exposure to secondhand smoke is by "eliminating smoking in indoor spaces."

But James Graham, who attended the meeting and appeared to have no business stake in the issue, disagreed with the Surgeon General's report and countered that the risk of harm from exposure "is just about like getting hit by lightning." Graham, president of Palo Petroleum, says he is fighting the expansion of the smoking ban because he "hates seeing lies being told and laws being passed and more and more infringements on this country."

Council member Mitchell Rasansky takes a similar position. "I'm also concerned about the scare tactics. We're talking about secondhand smoke in a place that you'll be in for an hour and a half or two hours—in a bar or a billiard hall or something like that. People do not have to go into those places."

Rasansky and Kadane have an ally in council member Jerry Allen who remains concerned over the expense of enforcing an expanded ordinance. Last year, he says, only 13 citations were given to violators of the current smoking ordinance and the cost of an expanded ordinance could be more than a million dollars, at least for the first year. "That's a lot of money to spend on 13 citations." Allen explains that in 2007, the city's 311 system received more than 400,000 calls, and only 42 were complaints about smoking. Yet there were 502 complaints about roosters. "That would lead me to believe that our current ordinance is OK," Allen says.

There seemed no consensus at the meeting as to whether widening the smoking ban would affect business. Karen Hoyt-Potasznik, chair for Smoke Free Dallas, part of a coalition of mostly public health organizations seeking to ban secondhand smoke from indoor workplaces, told the committee that her organization had researched sales tax revenue from businesses in cities that have already implemented a smoking ban. The tax revenue, she maintained, has remained steady before and after various bans.

But Clinton Coleman, a member of the board of directors for Fox and Hound Restaurant Group, maintains that their business has seen an average 14 percent decline in sales in cities that have passed a ban. He urged the council to allow a separate room for smoking patrons.

Dallas bar owners interviewed were themselves split on the merits of a ban. Simon McDonald, owner of the Libertine on Greenville Avenue, says he doesn't expect it to affect business as long as the ban is citywide. "I actually smoke myself, but I think [the ban] is a good thing," McDonald says. "I think it'll be good all around; it'll just make every place nicer."

Some businesses are not opposed to the expanded ordinance as long as their smoking patrons are still able to use outside patios. Michael Doughman, the executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild says, "It's just going to happen in some form or another, inevitably."

Don Nedler, owner of the Lizard Lounge on Swiss Avenue sounded as if he's ready to toss in the towel. "I've accepted the fact that we're turning into a society that legislates morality and legislates health issues and legislates your conduct, and I've just accepted it," he says. "You know, I hate to say I'm beaten down by it over the years, but we're becoming a nonsmoking society."

A final committee hearing on November 24 revisited some of the more vexing details regarding the ordinance: whether smoking should be allowed in cigar bars; whether the owner or just the smoker should be liable for smoking within 15 feet of an entrance to a building; whether it was permissible to have the council set a fixed fine of $200 for violating the ordinance or whether the fine amount was more the jurisdiction of municipal judges. Although several residents expressed strong views, both pro and con, on whether to expand the smoking ordinance to bars, the committee didn't vote on that issue again.

Assuming the committee can reach an agreement about the full extent of the ordinance it seeks to put in place, the full council should vote on the ban December 10. "I think we're working through the particulars of it. Some of those are more important to me and some of those are less important to me, to be truthful," Mayor Leppert says. "But I think it's appropriate to have a smoking ordinance that is more inclusive than what we have today."