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As Statewide Smoking Ban Burns Out in Capitol, Cities Go It Alone

Next year will mark the fifth legislative session in a row where Texas lawmakers have considered a statewide ban on smoking in public places. More than 100 Texas cities haven't waited for them, despite pushback from some businesses.

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A decision by the Paris City Council in March to ban smoking in public places, including restaurants, angered Brent McKee. A restaurant owner, McKee was thinking about the customers who enjoyed a cigarette or two while nursing their morning coffee.

“I built this with my blood and sweat, and then they come in and they tell me what I can and cannot do?  That upset me,” he said of the ban.

Now, McKee reluctantly acknowledges a change of heart.

“I’m glad it happened, I guess,” he said last week. “Everybody says it smells so much better. It hurts the business in the morning time with the coffee and the smokers, but the rest of the day, everybody who wouldn’t come in here will come in here now.”

Next year, Texas lawmakers will again consider a statewide ban on smoking in public  places. It will be the fifth legislative session in a row in which such a measure has been proposed. More than 100 Texas cities — encompassing nearly half of the state population — have moved on their own, enacting some sort of ban on smoking in public places in an effort to reduce secondhand smoke exposure, according to state records.

“I think eventually Texas is going to pass smoke-free laws,” said Cam Scott, senior director of government relations with Smoke-Free Texas. “It’s just a matter of when.” 

Nationally, 24 states and Washington, D.C., have comprehensive smoking bans, according to the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Most cities in Texas with bans have carved out exceptions for certain businesses like bars. Thirty-six cities, including eight of the 10 largest, have comprehensive ordinances that ban smoking in all public workplaces, according to state records. A handful of cities have adjusted their ordinances to include electronic cigarettes.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who has filed a smoking ban bill ahead of next month’s session, said movement at the local level was encouraging, but a statewide ban remained essential.

“Without a statewide smoke-free law, 23 percent of Texans will remain unprotected from secondhand smoke exposure,” Ellis said. “These Texans live in unincorporated cities or rural areas where no entity exists to pass or enforce this type of legislation.”

When Fort Worth approved a smoking ban in 2007, state Rep. Charlie Geren, a Republican, opposed it as both a legislator and as the owner of Railhead Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant. Like many other critics of such bans, Geren said he views the Fort Worth ordinance as an infringement on his rights as a private property owner.

“If I want to allow smoking, I should be able to allow it,” Geren said. “It’s my restaurant.”

Geren also expressed frustration that the Fort Worth ban carved out exceptions for bars and bingo halls, which made it easier for those businesses to compete.

“I would have been more comfortable with it if it were a true ban,” Geren said.

The Texas Restaurant Association supports a statewide ban, citing the current confusion for restaurant owners dealing with a “whole hodgepodge of different laws,” said Kenneth Besserman, the association’s general counsel.

Yet a statewide ban remains unlikely to pass next year, as a large contingent of state lawmakers view it as unnecessary government intrusion, Scott, of Smoke-Free Texas, said.

“We intend to convince the Legislature, but we recognize it may not happen this session,” Scott said. “We realize we need to continue building momentum at the local level.”

Disclosure: Smoke-Free Texas was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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