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Smoking ban gets in our eyes


Only a week ago, Councilman Justin Rodriguez's proposed expansion of the City's smoking ordinance â?? to include pretty much all interior spaces where bonhomie is practiced â?? seemed a foreordained success: The Mayor endorsed the idea at a press conference designed to put the lead in the remaining council members' pencils, where the Smoke-Free San Antonio Coalition rolled out a poll that showed not only solid support for a broader smoking ban, but that five out of eight respondents would be more likely to vote for a city council member who supported the proposed ordinance, compared to the mere 21 percent who would be less likely to do so.

Among those likely in the latter category: Jim Hasslocher of locally beloved chain Jim's, three locations of which still allow smoking, along with the bar at the Hasslocher-owned Magic Time Machine.

“Sometimes government is too intrusive into people's lives,” said Hasslocher, a former city councilman who says he worked on the City's first smoking ordinance in the '80s. What's next? he asked. “Let's not sell liquor in bars, and put everybody out of business.”

Proponents of the expanded ban, including District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez, point to the health of employees who work in smoky watering holes and eateries, but Hasslocher says thanks in part to the influence of the current ordinance, there are now many nonsmoking establishments in which to work. Alternatively, he adds, “you don't make people work smoking sections if they don't want to work the smoking section.”

Lobbyist Ken Brown of Brown & Ortiz, which represents R.J. Reynolds and the San Antonio Mixed Beverage Association claims: “If they pass the ordinance, they won't have to worry, because there won't be as many employees.” Brown questions the Mayor and Rodriguez's assertion that because the last ordinance, enacted in 2003, didn't ruin small-business owners, this one won't have a negative impact, either. That law, says Brown, left proprietors options, from segregated smoking sections to filtering systems, and exempted venues that are irretrievably stained with nicotine in our collective imagination: bowling alleys, pool halls â?¦ and VFW clubs. “Really, they can fight for our country, but they can't get together and smoke?” Brown asks. They'd still be free to smoke at home, of course, a cold comfort that, “sounds like â??let them eat cake.'”

Curious whether our vets were really on fire about the topic, the QueQue stopped for a beer last week at historic Post 76, which now attracts architects and hipsters to its newly redone riverbanks along with its motorcycle and blue-collar contingents, and where ashtrays are readily available in the smoking-permitted bar and front room. Only one gentleman was actually taking advantage of the liberty, but he said he'd be inclined to just drink at home if he couldn't light up with his longneck. A Vietnam vet disagreed: He'd quit long ago because of the impact it could have on others' health, he said. The fact that he'd fought for his country “doesn't give me the right to hurt you,” he added.

At the other end of the bar, a mountain of a man in a Harley vest said his grandmother long ago told him he'd pay for his own sins. “I'll do it till they put me out,” he said. The bartender likes to smoke in the evening, and was similarly unenthused and worried that it would cost her business and tips. But Post manager Luis Gomez, doesn't believe the expanded ban would affect the VFW, because last year they invested in air purifiers.

It's exactly that sort of investment District 10 Councilman John Clamp says the proposed new law would penalize. Like most of the ban opponents the QueQue spoke with, Clamp would rather see a statewide ban, which the Texas Restaurant Association voted to support in 2009. Along with the specter of vets forced to smoke in solitary isolation, opponents' dreams are haunted by the image of an Alamo Heights bar and restaurant district pumped up by fugitives from SA's smoke-free hospitality industry.

Clamp says the current ordinance is working just fine, because there are now many nonsmoking bars and restaurants to choose from. But more importantly, he doesn't think it's government's job to protect us from every risk.

“I don't smoke, I don't like smoking, I have family members who have died from smoking,” he said. “I'll agree 100 percent that smoking's bad, but more important to me is losing our personal freedoms.”

He predicts that more Council dissent will materialize in the upcoming weeks. “There's a strong sentiment that we're moving too fast,” he said. “And there's also strong dissension that we should not be doing this.”

San Antonio's hottest new hotelier is at peace with the pending ordinance, even though she's now proprietrix of one of the city's former favorite smoking bars (per a poll you can take to the bank: the Current's annual Best of San Antonio readers' choice awards). “Before we made the decision, we did a lot of polling of people who loved the bar,” said Liz Lambert, who also operates properties in Marfa and smoke-free Austin. The people who no longer went to the basement club because of the smoke “pretty much outweighed” those who said it was key to their patronage. Another key factor in her decision to cut the indoor smoking: the $40,000 it would take to replace the nonfunctioning filtration system and word on the street that SA was likely to go smoke-free in the near future, anyway. Because cigars are so much a part of the Havana's history and identity, Lambert plans to continue selling stogies onsite, which can be smoked in the designated areas outside.

“When Austin was going smoke-free, I had mixed feelings about it, especially little dives like the Continental Club” Lambert said. “But honestly, I don't think anyone has missed it.”

Should you care to weigh in on this topic, and learn more about the details, drop in on Wednesday's Governance Committee meeting: 1pm in the City Hall Media Briefing Room.

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