by Kim Krisberg
Don’t mess with Texas. The iconic phrase was actually created as part of an anti-littering campaign more than 20 years ago, however it could be as easily applied to the state’s notorious anti-regulatory attitude and penchant for bucking convention. But despite its reputation, the Lone Star State is poised to join 29 other states in passing a statewide restriction on indoor smoking.
With the Texas legislature now in special session, policy-makers are considering a bill (known as HB 46 in the House and SB 28 in the Senate) that would ban indoor smoking in bars and restaurants. A similar smoking ban was considered during the regular legislative session, which ended in May, but the legislation never made it out of the Senate. Advocates seem hopeful that the bill could still reach the governor’s desk and are calling on state policy-makers to move swiftly before the special session closes at the end of June.
As of this week, the ban’s fate hinges on action in the state Senate, where a hearing on the bill is scheduled for next Monday, June 20; the Texas House has already passed the bill out of committee. Melinda Little, co-chair of the Smoke-Free Texas coalition said she is “cautiously optimistic” that after years of work, the bill will finally become law.
“It’s funny that smoke-free legislation that would save taxpayers’ money and lives is controversial, but it is,” Little told me.
Opposition to the bill is coming from the usual corners — business owners afraid that the ban will turn away customers and those arguing that it violates individual property rights. It’s odd, Little noted, as no one thinks twice about rules that mandate employee hand-washing or regulate food safety, but when it comes banning smoking in restaurants, it’s often seen as a property rights issue rather than a public health one. In fact, a statewide indoor smoking ban wouldn’t even be new to the state:
More than 30 Texas cities and almost half of the population are covered by local smoke-free workplace ordinances. The statewide ban isn’t “out there at all,” Little said, “This is very mainstream.”
Very mainstream, indeed. A survey conducted earlier this year found that 70 percent of Texas voters favor a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces and public facilities, including public buildings, offices, restaurants and bars. The benefits to public health and health care costs are striking as well. A recent study concluded that a smoke-free workplace law would save the state of Texas more than $400 million every two years, which includes reduced health care costs from both smokers who quit as well as reduced exposure to secondhand smoke.
Today, tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of premature death and disease in the state. Not all business groups are opposed to the smoking ban. Actually, a number of local chambers of commerce are listed as supporters of the Smoke-Free Texas coalition. Mercedes Feris, director of events at the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, told me that her organization is not only a supporter of the proposed ban, but is in the process of adopting its own smoke-free workplace policy.
“It all ties back to productivity,” Feris said. “It’s a win-win on both sides.”
Work to bring Texas into the smoke-free fold began years ago; similar smoke-free bills failed to make it out of the legislature in 2007 and 2009. If the current legislation doesn’t succeed, advocates such as Little might have to wait another two years when legislators are back in regular session (the Texas legislature meets biennially). If that does happen, Little said, the coalition will continue work to pass local ordinances. Though the best they could hope for is to reach the 76 percent of the state’s population that doesn’t live in unincorporated areas, she said.
“This is our last chance in 2011 to pass this common sense legislation,” Little said.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance reporter living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for almost a decade. While her education is in journalism, her heart is in public health.