With time growing short, debate over Texas smoking ban heats up

Supporters and opponents of a statewide smoking ban squared off Tuesday over whether the proposed law is a vital public-health safeguard or an affront to the rights of business and property owners.

Both sides packed a hearing Tuesday evening before the Texas House Committee on State Affairs to debate the bill, which would ban smoking in nearly all indoor public places.

“It is about more government control in our businesses and our personal lives,” said Scott Camarata, owner of Cafe Marizon in Amarillo, who spoke strongly against the measure. “We need to wake up and see what’s happening in our state and our country.”

But college student Krista Knight, 22, of College Station countered that she went to work last year at a sports bar where people smoked and soon noticed an unusual shortness of breath when she jogged.

She said that although smoking was a personal choice for others, she was forced to face the health risks. Like many students, she said, she had class during the day and had to work at night, when few jobs are available besides bar and restaurant work.

“Unfortunately, I did not have any other options,” she said.

College Station enacted a smoking ordinance this year, and her breathing has returned to normal, she said.

‘The clock is ticking’

Earlier Tuesday, supporters of the ban ratcheted up pressure on lawmakers to vote on the legislation by delivering almost 10,000 petition signatures to the Capitol.

“The clock is ticking,” said Cass Wheeler, a retired CEO of the American Heart Association who represents the group Smoke-Free Texas. “We are here to remind Texas lawmakers that Texans want a smoke-free state.”

Two bills — Senate Bill 544 and House Bill 5 — propose the ban. Both remain in committee.

Some cities, including Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas, already have ordinances that ban smoking in some or most public places.

However, some business owners complain that local bans create an unfair patchwork of laws, infringe on civil liberties and drive smoking customers elsewhere.

The Texas Restaurant Association’s board of directors has supported the statewide ban, saying it would level the playing field.

Before the committee hearing, Flower Mound Mayor Jody Smith stood with Wheeler outside the Senate chamber at a news conference calling on the House and Senate committees to send the bills to the floor for votes.

Flower Mound adopted a local smoking ban that took effect Jan. 1, and she said the outcome should give lawmakers the “strength to pass these bills” even though they have detractors.

Many Flower Mound businesses that initially resisted the ban have changed their minds and “now are calling our office to say, ‘Thank you, my business is thriving,’ ” Smith said.

Twenty-five other states have already enacted statewide smoking bans, Wheeler said.

Smoke-Free America said it took a poll in January that found that 68 percent of Texans support a statewide ban.

Property-rights concern

Some lawmakers expressed reservation about the legislation. During Tuesday’s hearing, Wheeler called suggestions that the ban would destroy businesses a myth.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth and owner of the Railhead Smokehouse, abruptly asked whether Wheeler would be surprised to know that his business fell 15 percent after Fort Worth enacted its smoking ordinance.

“Yes, I would,” Wheeler said.

“Well, it did,” Geren responded.

Afterward, Geren said he would not vote for the measure.

“It’s a property-rights issue for me,” he said.

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