Statewide smoking ban being prepped for next legislative session

AUSTIN -- Undaunted by failure in last year's legislative session, supporters of a statewide smoking ban are gearing up to resurrect the measure to combat what they say is a public-health menace caused by secondhand smoke.

Similar legislation died in the waning days of the 2009 Legislature despite the support of cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and an aggressive push by a statewide coalition of public-health organizations. Proponents couldn't overcome opposition from conservative free-enterprise groups that denounced the ban as government intrusion into private property rights

Spokesmen for the coalition, Smoke-Free Texas, said Wednesday that supporters are preparing to reintroduce the measure in the 2011 Legislature, convening in January, while conceding that they face the same obstacles.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who co-authored the Senate version of the bill in 2009, said she is eager to resume that role in 2011.

"We're as vibrant and strong as ever," said James Gray, government relations director for the American Cancer Society, one of the member groups of Smoke-Free Texas. "We're a group that's not going away until it's done."

But Peggy Venable, Texas director of Americans for Prosperity, said opposition forces are equally determined to deliver another knockout if the bill resurfaces.

"We're concerned about it -- not because we want to encourage more people to smoke, but because we care about property rights and individual freedoms," said Venable, a nonsmoker and breast cancer survivor.

Venable said that she suspects that federal stimulus money distributed for "smoking cessation" efforts may be used to help finance the Texas campaign, but representatives of Smoke-Free Texas flatly dismissed the assertion.

"No federal stimulus or other federal dollars are funding Smoke-Free Texas efforts," said Bill Noble, a media consultant who represents the coalition.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee, led by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, heard testimony from two proponents Wednesday as part of the panel's interim charge to examine the impact of a statewide smoking ban.

Nelson was among a group of lawmakers who joined Armstrong on the steps of the Capitol last year in support of the ban. But in a statement after Wednesday's hearing, she said "it is unclear whether it will receive sufficient support this session."

"Texans are becoming less tolerant of smoking in public places, and there are compelling reasons for protecting workers," she said. "However, because this issue involves personal freedom, it is a difficult one for many legislators."

Gray said the bill being planned for 2011 will essentially have the same components as the unsuccessful 2009 bill, which would have banned smoking in workplaces and public places including restaurants and bars.

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, lead sponsors of the 2009 bill, are planning to sponsor the proposed ban in 2011, their offices said Wednesday.

"We think every session is a new session and learns from the sessions before," said Crownover's chief of staff, Kevin Cruser. The new bill will propose the same "comprehensive ban" as the previous bill, said Cruser. "We don't plan to make any drastic changes."

But a representative of the Texas Restaurant Association, which has worked with the coalition of health groups to support a ban in the two previous sessions, said the organization would consider a "scaled down" version of the legislation if "support for a comprehensive statewide ban does not exist."

Richie Jackson, chief executive of the association, testified before Nelson's committee.

He later told the Star-Telegram that one possible compromise would be to impose a ban on smoking in public facilities, such as bars and restaurants, but to leave workplaces out since they are covered in a number of local ordinances. Another compromise would be legislation with unified regulation for urban areas.

Thirty-one Texas cities have comprehensive smoke-free ordinances covering public facilities and workplaces, while a number of others, including Fort Worth and Arlington, have ordinances with varying restrictions.

Proponents of a comprehensive statewide ban said it would replace spotty city-by-city regulations.

"We've created an unequal playing field," said Davis. "I really think it makes good economic sense for us to have unified, statewide, consistent regulation with regard to smoking bans."

Jackson told Nelson's committee that widely varying restrictions in metropolitan areas "hurt operators who must compete for business on an unequal footing."

A restaurant owner in Dallas, which bans smoking in restaurants, suffered a fall-off in business because customers drove across the street to his competitors in Addison, which allowed smoking, Jackson said.

Dr. Philip Huang with the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department told senators that smoking tops the list of preventable health threats and causes millions of dollars in economic consequences, from lost productivity to increased insurance premiums.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief, 512-476-4294