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Smoke and Mirrors

Of all the things to fight the good fight against, it was odd to see LULAC and NAACP join hands in front of City Hall and oppose ... a smoking ban. In April, District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez proposed a new smoking ordinance that would prohibit smoking in most restaurants, bars and public places. A previous ordinance from 2003 allows smoking in establishments like pool halls, adult-only bars and restaurants that have an air-filtration system and a walled-off smoking area. Rodriguez's new ordinance would quash many of those exceptions, especially for indoor establishments. The San Antonio Restaurant Association has roundly criticized the new ordinance, and on Monday held a press conference to introduce the Save Our Jobs Alliance, comprised of SARA members, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People and the San Antonio Mixed Beverage Association, who claim the ban will disproportionately burden Hispanic and African-American small business owners.

SARA and SAMBA's opposition to the ban is well-known: SARA negotiated with the City for nearly a year on 2003's smoking ordinance. SAMBA came into existence a little over one year ago with the help of Ken Brown, a lobbyist for Reynolds American, the parent company of Big Tobacco's RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and American Spirit. Both local groups oppose the smoking ban on economic principle, fearing that mandating non-smoking restaurants and bars will kill businesses already running on a slim 3-4 percent profit margin. Louis Barrios, a SARA member and owner of Los Barrios restaurants, said this kind of ordinance would have run his mother's original Los Barrios restaurant out of business during its first ten years. Claiming that 97 percent of San Antonio restaurants are already smoke-free by choice, owners of the other three percent of businesses which invested in pricey air-filtration systems are also flatly pissed off that the proposed ordinance would render their semi-recent investment in smoke-filtration systems (which can run into the upper five-figure price range) null and void.

The two groups have been collecting allies like Hispanic marketing magnate Lionel Sosa, who wrote in a June 10 letter to City Council that "this proposed ordinance is economically discriminatory to members of the Hispanic community," reasoning that people of color are more likely to own the San Antonio ice houses, pool halls and VFW halls that the Save Our Jobs Alliance claims the ordinance affects most. "The smaller the business, the bigger the impact," echoed Barrios at the press conference. Enter Rosa Rosales, national president of LULAC, and Tracy Harper, who read a letter by Marvinette Smith, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. They joined Ruben Cortez, president of SARA and scion to the Cortez family restaurant empire, including Mi Tierra and Pico de Gallo, and Bill Johnson, a bar owner who co-founded SAMBA with his wife. "My concern is the jobs," said Rosales, "and the small little restaurants." SARA and SAMBA claim that failing businesses and shuttered smoking patios would lead to the elimination of hundreds of thousands of service industry jobs, which hire more Hispanic and African American workers than other local business sectors. Hunter, who is a smoker (as well as a severe asthmatic), read a letter from Smith reiterating those figures as a primary cause for concern. Rosales pointed to a rumored loophole for cigar bars as further hints of discrimination. "Who goes to a bar to buy a $30 or $40 cigar and cognac?" she asked the news cameras, "we don't have that kind of money."

Proponents of the smoking ordinance counter that the real discrimination lies in the smoking-related illnesses that disproportionately affect Hispanics and African Americans. While Johnson told reporters "not one death has been attributed to second hand smoke," a 1999 study conducted by the National Cancer Institute associated nearly 40,000 deaths annually with secondhand smoke, including deaths from heart disease and lung cancer, two leading causes of premature death in African Americans and Hispanics. Though both Hispanics and African-Americans are less likely to smoke than whites, as a whole they receive less access to quality healthcare and are more likely to be employed in workplaces without smoke-free policies. Hispanics suffer from smoking-related illnesses at the same rate as whites. African Americans report even higher rates of both lung cancer and heart disease than whites or Hispanics. Moreover, service industry jobs, especially in the small mom-and-pop establishments the Save Our Jobs Alliance most wants to protect, employ more Hispanic and African American employees than any other occupational sector, according to the US Census Bureau. "I would have to say that it's perhaps also discriminatory when we don't think about those who work in the service industry," said Dr. Fernando Guerra, Director of Health for the San Antonio's Metro Health and a supporter of expanding the smoking ban. Reached on his cell phone, Rodriguez added, "the previous ban has decreased the number of smoking establishments, but there's still an overall concern about employee well-being."

As far as negatively impacting minority-owned businesses, Smoke-Free Texas, a statewide coalition in support of smoke-free policies, points out that local bar, restaurant and lodging industries in cities and states that have passed expanded smoke-free ordinances have yet to show a negative impact on profits. In fact, a recently-relocated couple from Destin, Florida, who happened by the press conference, said Destin passed a similar smoking ordinance. "It was the best thing they ever did," said wife Weidia Coutts, who said she and husband Fred quit smoking shortly after the ban went into effect. "After six months, they'll be happy," she said pointing to the group on City Hall's steps.

"I've lived in cities where they've had these ordinances, and it's not true," said Tommy Calvert, Jr., an African American East Side activist and self-described "anti-tobacco crusader" in reference to the bad-for-business argument. Like other community leaders, Calvert is puzzled that both the NAACP and LULAC would jump into the anti-smoking ban fray. "I wouldn't hold water for Big Tobacco any day," said Calvert, "and I bet you biscuits I could make a financial-based argument that the costs to minority families afflicted with smoking-related illnesses are far greater than anything that restaurants would suffer." Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, said "I don't want to disagree that `an expanded smoking ban` may affect people of color's businesses. But this is a short-term way to look at a more long-term problem ... I don't think calling it racist is appropriate." Rodriguez, who has not spoken with either Smith or Rosales and was unaware of yesterday's press conference, said "I don't know how they would disect this into racial lines. We'd be happy to meet with them and discuss what concerns they do have. `But` I have not heard directly from any of those leaders. I have heard, of course, from SARA."

Neither LULAC nor NAACP has a history of opposing smoking bans. In fact, supporting smoke-free environments has been a priority for other chapters of LULAC and the NAACP. Locally, Guerra said he could not recall hearing from either group during discussions about the 2003 smoking ordinance. When asked how LULAC became involved in SA's anti-anti-smoking ban campaign, Rosales said she was approached by SARA, before announcing "when we get called for a need, we answer it!" Cortez confirms he brought up the subject as Rosales was eating at his restaurant one day this summer. Rosales then took the conversation to the local chapter of the NAACP, which frequently joins arms with LULAC on local civil rights issues. But framing the smoking ban as a violation of civil rights seems a stretch at best. Using the estimation that 20 percent of San Antonians are confirmed smokers, NAACP rep Hunter proclaimed at the press conference "200,000 smokers have rights too!" while Rosales said service industry employees could just find a job at a non-smoking establishment if they were too bothered by smoke. Even more puzzling was the keep-your-laws-off-my-lungs brand of laissez-faire economic policy both Rosales and Hunter espoused on behalf of their organizations. In the past, both the NAACP and LULAC have urged government regulation in the form of affirmative action, health care reform, home loans and worker's rights, so the QueQue admits to being a bit confused reading the following from the Save Our Jobs Alliance: "We strongly believe that the free enterprise system and the free market should dictate how businesses cater to their customers." Frankly the last time we heard this argument, it was coming from Kentucky's Republican senate candidate Rand Paul, discussing his theoretical opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

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