SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Step into any local bar on a Friday night and you’ll likely find yourself engulfed in a sea of smokers—and smoke—a scene San Antonio’s City Council wants to change.
Only one of three major U.S. cities that still allows smoking in public restaurants and bars, the Alamo City is embroiled in a heated debate over a citywide smoking ban and the right to light up in public places.
“I’m guessing bar business will go down by 21%,” said Diamond Dave, general manager of the popular Downtown bar and grill, Broadway 50/50. He makes this prediction on the heels of the hot-button issue approved by the City Council in August., The updated smoke-free ordinance takes effect Aug. 19, 2011 “I see it affecting our business pretty adversely,” he said.
Diamond Dave’s misgivings about a smoke-free mandate echo those of several grassroots organizations, and the local community has been fired up since last April when the ordinance to enforce a tougher comprehensive citywide smoking-ban to battle second-hand smoke was proposed.
The city’s new anti-smoking ordinance includes bars, pool halls, comedy clubs, restaurant and bingo halls, as well as public spaces like the San Antonio Zoo, the River Walk, Alamo and Main plazas and parks and outdoor stadiums. Currently in the Alamo City, bars, pools halls, comedy clubs, bingo halls and restaurants that have enclosed smoking sections with separate ventilation systems are exempted for San Antonio’s original smoking ordinance, which was passed in 2003. In addition, the new law will only affect San Antonio businesses; the 21 other municipalities in the San Antonio area won’t fall under the ban, leading critics to say this gives those businesses an unfair advantage and maybe even a cut of their customers in search of a place where they can enjoy a cigarette with their meal.
Following City Councilman Justin Rodriguez’s introduction of the law, Mayor Julian Castro emerged as one of the strongest advocate for the cause, citing the promotion of good health as his motivating factor. In early June, the City Council held a public hearing on the matter, but with public sentiment fractured, the council members largely remained silent. Since then, however, Mayor Castro has said that he and his colleagues have reviewed empirical data on both sides.
“The unbiased nontobacco-funded studies generally find a positive benefit or a neutral effect on bars and restaurants,” he said. “The question is: ‘Is there not one single establishment that would be less well off with this ordinance?’ Of course there is. But I believe it will be a very limited number compared to those who will benefit from it.”
On the other side of the fence, however, the San Antonio Restaurant Association was quick to oppose the ordinance, with additional grassroots groups cropping in opposition, identifying infringement of rights, potential job-loss and even racism as reasons against the ban.
The Save Our Jobs Alliance was formed to fight adoption of the stronger ordinance. The group is comprised of the restaurant association, the San Antonio Mixed Beverage Association, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the local chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People.
“We looked at the areas of town where smoking would be allowed. For example, cigar bars–and you can’t find a cigar bar on the East or West side of town [where the ban would be implemented] and that is discriminatory,” said Ruben Cortez, president of San Antonio’s Restaurant Association. “Plus, those that will lose their jobs in the restaurant industry are likely minorities.” LULAC national president Rosa Rosales has likewise denounced the no-smoking law, calling the ban “racially discriminatory.”
However, Dr. Fernando Guerra, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, has said that “it’s just the opposite. Recognized minority communities are more often employed in the service industry. Given that,” he said, “we probably would be even more, perhaps, contributing to discrimination and the associated adverse health consequences, which are more prevalent in these groups, if we don’t do something.”
Ban supporters and detractors have cited studies and statistics that substantiate their respective stances. For instance, smoking-ban supporters point to an abundance of documents that suggest that smoking bans don’t negatively impact local economies. In fact, according to a recent article in the San Antonio Express-News, “several studies show comprehensive smoking ordinances tend to have a positive effect on the hospitality industry.”
In fact, a slew of statistics and even surveys taken in other large Texas cities that have gone smoke-free indicate a lesser impact on their economies, suggesting that perhaps where there’s smoke, there isn’t always fire.
The City of Houston, after adopting comprehensive smoking bans, hired consultant group MGT of America to study the economic impacts of the ordinances, which originally included restaurants in 2005 and was updated in 2007 to include all enclosed public spaces, including bars. The study found that after the bans, there was a statistically significant increase in “per-outlet” sales in eateries. It also concluded that there is no statistically significant relationship between a smoking ban in bars and their level of sales.
Diamond Dave, with 32 years in the restaurant industry and a Master’s degree in restaurant management, opposes the ban, but says he and the rest of the local service industry would likely suffer in the beginning, but will ultimately “adjust to it.”
A Patron’s Take
Both sides claim to have the San Antonio citizens’ best interest at heart, but what do the people of the Alamo City really think? Not much of the ban, but the current state may be making it harder for smokers to quit, according to a longtime smoker and recent resident of San Antonio.
“I come from El Paso (which has a citywide ban), so when I moved here, I was surprised to be able to smoke in places and it really felt like a lot more people smoked here,” said Carl DeKoatz, 27. “I can say it’s easier to quit if you’re not able to smoke everywhere. I think that I smoke more in San Antonio, because where I usually would just wait until I went outside or whatever, I could just light up a cigarette.”
However, says DeKoatz, the ban wouldn’t necessarily influence his decision while making plans to eat or drink. “That wouldn’t affect my decision; no… it’s not a problem to go outside and smoke a cigarette.”