Smoked Out

Chad Crowe

"What are you going to do, charge me with smoking?"
— Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Basic Instinct

How does that old saying go? When cigarette smoking is outlawed, only outlaws will smoke cigarettes? If so, Houston's outlaw ranks may be about to swell in numbers not seen since the glory days of Willie and Waylon and the boys. So smoke up, nicotine-addicted Bayou City barflies, because after midnight this Friday you'll have to step outside to indulge your filthy, filthy habit.

Or you're supposed to, anyway. If you insist on lighting up indoors starting September 1, your fellow patrons will be well within their rights to ask you to step outside, nicely or not. In fact, the city sort of expects them to, because there are only two "environmental investigators" on the entire City of Houston payroll with the specific job of enforcing the ban; until two weeks ago, there was only one. His name is Jeff Conn, and most of the time he doesn't work nights. Otherwise the city expects smokers to comply with the ordinance City Council approved last October through a policy it refers to as "self-enforcement."

A kind of tobacco honor system? This is a joke, right? Not to Kathy Barton, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health and Human Services. "I don't know that that's a great term," she admits. "I think what we're trying to convey is that the nonsmoking public is very likely, as they've done in the past, to ask smokers who are smoking where they're not supposed to be to stop."

Although she agrees with Barton ("nonsmokers don't have any problem butting into other people's business"), that spells trouble to Rudyard's owner Leila Rod­gers. "I think it's a recipe for unnecessary violence," she says. "I see people getting in each other's face over the whole issue. I see people who smoke going, 'Call the cops,' and the nonsmokers going, 'Screw you, I'm going to punch you out.'"

"We'd rather not be the ones that have to enforce these things, but we understand the city can't be in every pub," says Joe Stinebaker, co-owner of the Harp on Richmond. "Nor would they want to be."

Does this mean, then, that should someone dare to light up in their presence, nonsmokers are hereby empowered to take the law into their own hands and make a citizen's arrest? "Of course not," scoffs Barton, who would prefer they just inform the management. "It's not an arrestable offense."

As a matter of fact, the city has no plans to punish smokers who flout the ban, just the bars that allow it to happen. For such places — cigar bars, tobacco stores, private rooms at nursing homes and some hotel and meeting rooms remain exempt — a violation means either a warning or fine between $50 and $2,000, depending on their previous violations (if any) and what kind of mood the municipal court judge is in that day. But provided they take even elementary preventive measures, their chances of getting busted are pretty remote. Since the city's ban on smoking in all indoor public areas — the one that originally exempted bars, including those in some restaurants — went into effect two years ago, Barton says 65 places received warnings out of 365 complaints and 357 investigations. "We don't write these citations very often," she admits.

To comply with the ordinance, bars must remove all ashtrays and prominently display "No Smoking" signs. That's what the city's 43 "sanitarians," who primarily scout for food-safety violations, will now be looking for, either on their routine semiannual inspections or complaint-driven spot inspections. Those will occur, says Jeff Conn, when someone contacts the health department, which will send the establishment a warning letter. If the response is deemed inadequate, or there is no response, Conn or his colleague will pay them a visit.

In other words, bars that continue to allow smoking indoors face little danger of being raided mid-cigarette, but they'd better make sure those signs are up, the ashtrays are gone and they sweep all the stray butts off the floor at the end of the night. And Conn says there's no guarantee an inspector won't show up after normal business hours.

"If we have to go out at night, we'll either work overtime or flex our time," he says. "We don't have immediate response — it's physically impossible for us to do that — but we'll do the best we can to go at a reasonable time that the establishment might be in violation."

"I'm certain there are going to be some bars who are not going to be sincere in their efforts," Barton adds, "and we'll deal with them when it comes to our ­attention."

All the bars and venues the Press talked to said they would, however begrudgingly, comply with at least the letter of the new law. But to hold onto their customers, many will have to do a lot more. Walter's on Washington and Meridian both plan to build outdoor patio areas, and the Continental Club plans to expand its existing patio. The Harp already has an outdoor deck, but Stinebaker says the smoking ban has forced the owners to cough up a "significant amount" for an awning to cover the deck, as well as new lighting and fans for ventilation.


Other places aren't so lucky. Although Rudyard's has an outdoor patio downstairs, Rodgers says she doesn't have enough money to put one upstairs, or something even more elaborate. "For about five years, I've wanted to put a three-hole putt-putt golf course on the roof," she says. "Not because of the smoking ban, but if I get one, people can smoke while they putt."

Over at Proletariat, owner Denise Ramos faces an uncertain future for reasons entirely unrelated to the smoking ban. "Back when we heard about the smoking ban, we have an upstairs area we were thinking about building out," she says. "But the Light Rail might come through Richmond, so we're uncertain about building — if it does, Proletariat will have to be demolished."

Ramos expects to know her bar's fate by next June; until then, although she admits her clientele are heavy smokers, she trusts them not to abandon her. "We have a really, really loyal customer base, and they're pretty much going to have to deal with this wherever they go," she says. "But people in the Montrose support all the bars — it's part of their lifestyle."

The ban also figures to cost clubs in other­ ways besides renovations. Walter's owner Pam Robinson anticipates losing several man-hours a week to employees on cigarette breaks. "That's what's going to hurt the most: my staff leaving from behind the bar to go smoke," she says. "My cute little girls behind the bar will leave with their cigarettes and their cell phones, and I won't see them for half an hour."

Furthermore, ducking outside for a smoke is one thing if you're just hanging out at a bar, and another matter entirely if you've just paid a hefty cover charge to see a band and have to decide between submitting to the urge and missing a song or two. "It pisses me off no end," says Meridian owner Bob Fuldauer, who thinks the reason most often cited by the ordinance's supporters — protecting the health of often-uninsured service-industry workers — is hogwash.

"I've been in the bar business since 1986, and I recently went in for a checkup," he says. "I'm 50, and my doctor told me I have the heart and lungs of an 18-year-old. I've consumed more second-hand smoke than anyone I know. I think it's a bunch of crap, to tell you the truth."

Fuldauer, a lifelong nonsmoker, figures that, since the complaints dried up when he started doing nonsmoking shows — whichever of Meridian's two rooms the bands aren't playing in is the smoking area, "except for rockabilly shows" — it must come down to politics. "I don't remember voting on this," he says. "I don't remember there ever being an option there. They could have come up with a compromise that wasn't this drastic."

In Austin, they did vote on it. After one of the most rancorous and vitriolic campaigns from both sides in the capital city's recent history, in May 2005 voters approved an initiative banning smoking in bars and nightclubs by a thin 52-48 percent margin. And how did that work out?

"Business was just terrible for the first year," says Randall Stockton, owner of punk-rock club Beerland in the downtown Red River district. Beerland was forced to raise its cover charge and drink prices and cut out its happy hours, and eventually coaxed the city into allowing them to fence off some of the sidewalk out front to make a patio. If they hadn't done that, Stockton figures, Beerland would be out of business.

"It keeps customers on the premises with a beer in hand," he says. "It was expensive and will probably pay for itself over time, [and] has the added value of giving us the appearance of a place where something's happening."

So there's that to look forward to. But if all else fails, Houston's hard-core nicotine fiends may have a recourse no one has previously thought of: starting a band. By the city's own language, the ordinance only applies to "enclosed public areas," and in Pam Robinson's opinion, Walter's public area ends at the edge of the stage.

"Mike from Flametrick Subs told me a lot of artists [in Austin] smoke, and they don't have the liberty of going outside," she says. "The stage and band room [backstage] are private areas, not open to the public. If someone gets onstage from the crowd, we throw them off."


Either way, Robinson adds, "If it means less cigarette butts in my urinals, I'll be happy."

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