The Velvet Melvin was practically empty when Todd Line bellied up to the bar on a Monday afternoon. His round face had grown long from a hard day at the mortgage company, and all this 28-year-old wanted was a little conversation, a couple of beers and a few smokes.
He liked the Velvet Melvin. He saw this pub on Richmond as his home away from home, a place where he could rest his stout frame before heading back to the apartment, watching a little TV, going to bed and starting all over again. He ordered a big-ass beer, dragged an ashtray his way and lit up a Marlboro Light.
In came a woman, who sat down next to him and signaled the bartender. "There were only three people there," says Line, "and she was talking to her buddy, and I could see her out of the corner of my eye making a choking sign to her buddy and going 'hack hack.' "
Line ignored her, not because he doesn't know the Heimlich -- he does -- but because he knew she was just making fun of his habit. "It's gotten ridiculous," he says. "People think you're stupid now, like, 'Oh, my God, you must be an idiot, you know what it does to you.' She had to sit next to me just so she could fake choke. I hate that shit."
This scenario replays itself every night. The actors and the setting might change, but the message is the same: Smokers are pariahs. People turn their noses up and away from them. It's become PC to diss a smoker in public.
Seventy-eight percent of Texans are nonsmokers. This number is growing, slowly and steadily. But what's skyrocketing is the number of local antismokers. Their mantra: "Your rights end where mine begin." Their style: vociferous. Their leader: City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the dermatologist who has appointed herself health czar on City Council and who recently spearheaded the push for a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants.
She was only mildly successful. After months of debate, a ban (effective September 9) was placed on smoking in indoor dining areas. This wasn't enough for the antismokers, so you can bet they'll keep pushing, both in council and in public, for a smoke-free environment, claiming the high ground, pooh-poohing anyone who disagrees.
They're all missing some important points. Smoking is good for Houston, and here's why:
Crazy, Sexy, Cool
Smoking is bad for you. It blackens your lungs. It rots your teeth. It stinks.
Most of us know this. We see the public service announcements. We hear the smoker's cough. Yet new puff-daddies pop up every day. Kids light up behind bleachers; adults light up in bars. Why? For the same reason people have always lit up: not because of peer pressure, not because of addiction, but because, well, smoking is cool.
Think James Dean, James Bond, any character from a Quentin Tarantino flick. Now take away their smokes, and see how cool they become.
Ask any waiter which customers are the most laid-back, and odds are he'll say the smokers. Go to any event and follow the laughter; it's probably coming from the smokers out back.
Smokers know how to live life, how to party.
"Nonsmokers look so uptight all the time," says Lisa Line, 32, a smoker for 16 years (and Todd's wife). Like many a troubled youth before her, Lisa started smoking to rebel. "It was my escape," she says. "Instead of having sex, I smoked."
Lisa knows smoking is bad for her, although you wouldn't guess it from the way she sucks down her butts. She rarely worries about the effect of a dozen daily cigarettes on her fair skin and pretty smile -- "They have teeth-whitening stuff," she says; "they have all these skin-care products" -- but she does plan to quit, eventually. "It'll just happen one day, and it's not going to be from the help of the government or these nonsmokers.
"They all do the little huff," she says, "like they can't breathe, waving their hands in front of their faces, looking like fucking idiots."
Her husband agrees: "It's freakin' discrimination. There's no doubt about it. Total bullshit." Todd's been a pack-a-day smoker for a dozen years, and he started for the same reason as just about everyone else: Smoking was rebellious then, as it is now. And rebellion is cool.
Why, Hello There...
Smoking gives you a foolproof way to strike up a conversation without looking sleazy. "Can I buy you a drink?" is too forward. "Come here often?" is downright lame. But "Hey, can I bum a light?" is an opening no one can refuse. And then you've got about a ten-second window to strike up a conversation with your future ex-lover. Try talking about antismokers, and how prissy you think they are. That should work.
Jacob Young, a 20-year-old freshman at the University of Houston, has gotten dates through smoking, most recently when he asked a young woman for her lighter at a party. "We just started talking," he says, "and we sat out there for a couple of hours, smoking cigarettes, and she gave me her number and I called her up a few days later."
This hookup was brought to you by smoking. Young would've had no other reason to talk to the young woman, save for being drunk and thinking she was attractive. (Which, admittedly, is reason enough for most guys, but a nonsmoker would've found himself scrambling for an opening line.) The lighter gave Young his intro, and the woman gave him her number.
Young started smoking when he was 17, a few years after the tobacco settlements and the advent of all the Truth commercials on TV. He's what you would call a respectful smoker: He doesn't exhale in people's faces; he rarely lights up in confined spaces. But he does think antismokers can be a little demanding, if not self-righteous, at times.
"If people complain because I'm walking in front of them smoking a cigarette and I'm doing my best to get out of their way, I'm just like, 'Get out of my way if it's bothering you,' " he says, pausing to take a drag outside the UH architecture building. He gazes at the blue smoke leaving his mouth, floating past his nose, his green eyes, his eyebrow ring -- up, up, up.
He lives in Moody Towers, where there was an uproar last semester when antismokers lobbied to outlaw smoking near the main entrance. "I can respect the fact that they don't want to stink like it and they don't want to inhale it," says Young, "but I think they go too far a lot of the time."
The university administration didn't agree and prohibited smoking near the dorm entrance, although the ashtrays have mysteriously reappeared and the smokers are back. Enforcement is a problem with any ban, as many members of City Council acknowledged when debating the issue for the city.
None of these limitations means anything to Young, who will keep on smoking half a pack a day (more when studying) no matter how much antismokers try to stop him. "I could quit," he says, "but why?" Smoking-cessation products can cost up to $40 a pop, while a pack of cigarettes is only $4, which even a poor college student can scrounge up. And for every person who accosts Young with 'tude, there's another who shares his habit and could become a new friend.
Smokers clump together. It's just what they do. They bum cigs; they borrow lighters; they feel a sense of camaraderie, of common vice, of shared pleasure. And they were doing so long before antismokers started corralling them and kicking them outside (although ostracism does breed solidarity).
Todd and Lisa Line never would've met if they hadn't both been into butts. "You tend to get on the same smoking schedule as someone you think is hot," he says, referring to when they used to work in the same building.
"I really didn't realize at first that he was checking me out," she says. He sneaked right up on her, and now they've been married for six years.
If antismokers had had their way, Todd never would've met the love of his life. How's that for family values? Oh, and he's also helping her take care of her kid. That's right: one less single-parent family, thanks to smoking.
"We're such a large-scale society, so whenever you can actually click with someone who's another smoker, I don't see what the problem is," says Colleen Smith, 23, a smoker for seven years who often puffs away her lunch breaks downtown. "We need to interact. We're so impersonal. We're so egocentric. And smoking is a form of community Nonsmokers can have their community; just let us have our community on the other side of the restaurant."
"Now wait a minute," some of you antismokers might be saying. "I have the right to go out in public and not have to breathe smoke."
Well, sorry, but bars and restaurants aren't public places. "These are privately owned establishments," says Dennis Keim, 52, a local rabble-rouser and occasional smoker. "If people don't want to be in that environment, there's nothing that forces them to be there. They have a choice of, in this town, something like 12,000 other eating establishments," he says, exaggerating the numbers a bit. (There are actually about 10,000 restaurants in the greater Houston area.)
Keim was okay with the ban, enacted in '92, that prohibited smoking on city property. "It's one thing to set policy in a facility that's owned by the government, where people have no alternative. You can't go to an alternative courthouse. You can't go to an alternative city hall."
But you can go to whatever restaurant you want. This is America, baby. And Houston, in case you haven't noticed from the utter lack of zoning, is supposed to be all about property rights. You can open up a tire shop right in the middle of a neighborhood. Ergo, you can do just about anything you want on your own property.
When City Councilman Michael Berry voted against the recent smoking ban, he said, "If you don't like smoking restaurants, don't go to them. What we heard over and over again, and it disturbs me, is this notion that 'I want to go to [someone's restaurant], and I want to tell him how to serve me on my terms,' which is 'I want you to serve me with no smoke,' even though he wants to serve those people who smoke."
There were plenty of nonsmoking restaurants in this city before the ban: Hugo's, Treebeards, Prego and Paulie's, to name a few. The owners of these places made the decision to not allow smoking, just like other owners chose to let people light up. Now the decision's been made for all of them.
Dollars and Sense
Francisco Rangel Hernandez is his name, but everyone calls him Frank. He's been waiting tables at Michelangelo's for 15 years, and people often wait an hour and a half to sit in his section, just inside the wooden door, right behind the piano player, not far from the tree growing right through the middle of this upscale Italian restaurant on Westheimer.
Part of it's got to do with Frank's charm: He's the kind of guy who can flirt with someone's wife and end up pleasing both parties. (The wife is flattered by the attention, the husband by having such an attractive mate.) But the main reason people line up and wait to be waited on by Frank is that his section is where they can smoke.
"Smokers are my best customers," says the 57-year-old nonsmoker, perched over a white tablecloth with Sinatra playing in the background. Over the years, Frank has lit more butts than a porn director, and when a customer runs out of smokes, he'll send a busboy across the street to pick up a pack.
Smokers rarely get impatient, while "most nonsmokers say, 'Where's my food?' " he says, drumming his fingers for effect. And smokers often order expensive wines and hang around to drink them, while nonsmokers chug down their iced teas and hit the road.
Frank makes up to $200 a night manning the smoking section, although that'll all end come September, when the ban goes into effect. Michelangelo's smoking customers, a.k.a. Frank's livelihood, will be booted outside to the patio.
It's a decent patio, to be sure, but "they like the inside of Michelangelo's, the romance, the ambience," he says. Once the smoking ban takes effect, Frank thinks, many of his regulars won't come as often or stay as long as they do now. And that's going to hurt Frank's wallet.
The countless antismokers who spoke in front of City Council iterated time and time again that a smoking ban wouldn't affect business. (Who knew they were such experts in economics?) But there's a different story in Dallas, where a ban was enacted in March 2003.
Two University of North Texas economists studied the effects of the smoking ban in restaurants, and the results were released in October 2004: Dallas lost $11.8 million (or 3.6 percent) in alcoholic beverage sales in 2003 compared with 2002. You could blame it on a sliding economy, but business was booming in the smoke-friendly suburbs, where hooch sales increased from 3.2 percent (Richardson) to 7.9 percent (Plano) to 12.2 percent (Frisco). The only other city showing a loss was Irving, down 0.8 percent.
The study also claims four longtime Dallas restaurants were forced to close on account of the ban.
So a large Texas city bans smoking in restaurants and loses a bunch of revenue because a lot of the smokers choose to dine in the suburbs?
"If I'm going to pay money somewhere, I'll be damned if I don't smoke," says Lisa Line.
A few paydays ago, she and her husband went to a classy seafood restaurant on Westheimer. Their daughter was at the baby-sitter's, so they were looking for a nice quiet dinner, a rare treat. They sat down, ordered their drinks and asked for an ashtray. When they were told it was a nonsmoking place, they got up and left, driving down the street to another restaurant, where they could smoke.
They say they'll hop on the freeway and take their business to the burbs once the ban takes effect. "We will drive," says Lisa. "We will definitely drive."
Any attempt to curtail smoking in bars and restaurants is an attempt to curtail smoking in general. The less people can smoke, the logic goes, the less they will. But is that such a good thing?
In 2003, Texas smokers paid 41 cents a pack in excise taxes, totaling more than $501 million. They paid more than $271 million in sales tax on cigarettes and another $479 million in extra costs due to tobacco settlements, which goes straight to the state. The grand total: more than $1.25 billion a year.
That's a lot of money for roads, schools and hospitals.
Doctoring the Numbers
Most antismokers just think smoking is icky, and they will do anything they can to eradicate it from the city, even if that means making populist appeals about the rights of restaurant workers. Yeah, all those people who got up and spoke in front of City Council really care about how restaurants workers are being forced to inhale secondhand smoke. It had nothing to do with their personal preferences; it was all about the workers. Yeah, right.
How come they didn't bother to ask Frank at Michelangelo's what he thought?
Anyway, restaurants have ventilation systems. "Cooking, especially over open flames, produces lots of smoke, yet customers do not smell it and workers do not suffer," thanks to ventilation systems, writes Russell Ybarra, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, in an e-mail to the Houston Press. (The GHRA supported the restaurant ban out of political expediency, although it was very much against a stronger ban.)
When evaluating the effects of secondhand smoke on restaurant workers, many researchers take measurements right in the middle of the smoking section. This is not a good representation of what the average worker deals with. A 2000 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory attached meters to waiters as they moved about the workplace. Significantly lower levels of exposure were found than previously thought; the researchers chalked it up to the efficiency of ventilation systems.
And just how bad is secondhand smoke? For every study that comes out and says it's horrible for you, there's another one that says it isn't. Take, for example, a paper published by the British Medical Journal in 2003. Two researchers looked at 38 years' worth of data for 118,000 Californians, focusing on 35,000 nonsmokers who lived with smokers. Their conclusion: "The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect." The link between secondhand smoke and disease, they wrote, "may be considerably weaker than generally believed."
This study was largely funded by the tobacco industry, a special-interest group with an obvious agenda. But at least you've got to give the researchers props for being transparent about it.
The antismoking camp touts the figure, time and time again, that secondhand smoke causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year in the States. This figure first popped up in a 1993 Environmental Protection Agency report. And the EPA doesn't have an agenda, right? Wrong. In 1998, U.S. District Judge William Osteen threw out the report, noting that the EPA "publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun" and "adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate the agency's public conclusion," which is all a roundabout way of saying the EPA selected its data and tweaked the numbers to get its desired result.
"I've been looking at this issue for over ten years," says Dave Pickrell, 52, president of Smokers Fighting Discrimination, a local advocacy group. "If you say I don't have a right to smoke, then demonstrate to me in terms of good science why I should be prohibited.
"The whole crux of my argument is: Show me something real. Demonstrate something real. Prove something real. Real. Don't give me these artificial things that have been cherry-picked."
You're probably more likely to trust the health industry than big tobacco, but either way you're falling into the fallacy that the source of an opinion has a necessary bearing on the truthfulness of it. Consider this: Churchill and Roosevelt smoked, while Hitler and Mussolini were big-time antismokers. Whose side do you want to be on?
Oh, and one more thing: A lot of antismoking advocacy groups are funded by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes a killing every year off of smoking-cessation devices, such as gums and patches.
Smoke and Mirrors
On the day City Council voted on the smoking ban, Councilwoman Sekula-Gibbs showed up in a red outfit with her hair all done up. She smiled at her aides and looked determinedly at her colleagues.
"I think that by doing something today that is really meaningful," she told the council, "you can put it behind you and move forward and you can deal with issues you probably thought you were running for and that you were really being elected to deal with."
Yeah, thanks. This from a woman who forced City Council to forgo just about everything else in order to debate the issue for more than two months. She cared so much about council's time, she was threatening to clog up the system again if the vote didn't turn out as she wanted. But, hey, it's not like council had more important things to think about.
"The ban came up to take the heat off of air pollution and Safe Clear," says Pickrell, noting the two issues that were at the fore before all the antismokers took over. Safe Clear was the mayor's controversial plan to clear up our congested freeways by instituting mandatory towing of stalled vehicles, while air pollution -- the outdoor kind -- was finally acknowledged as being out of control, and the mayor promised to do something about it.
Until antismokers kidnapped the issue.
"If you care about air quality, then you must do something about smoking" was a common refrain from the public. The Houston Chronicle threw more wood on the fire, running an editorial saying secondhand smoke was worse for air quality than industry.
The thing is, as Mayor White has so much as said, you can decide whether you want to enter a smoking establishment. You can't decide which outdoor air you breathe.
"On sunny days in late spring, one only need take a look at downtown and the brown haze ring to realize that secondhand smoke is not the major problem in this city," says an M.D. Anderson staffer who wishes to remain anonymous. "Secondhand smoke cannot account for higher incidences of lung and brain cancer in the Gulf Coast region, but perhaps the massive amounts of pollutants that Baytown, Pasadena and other Gulf Coast cities pump into the air could explain some of it."
There's also the issue of SUVs, which run rampant on our roads, guzzling gas and spewing out pollution. One person's right to drive a behemoth infringes on another's right to clean air, much like the issue of secondhand smoke, but with two important differences. One, you can't choose which roads to use. And two, smokers puff away for their own pleasure, and any harm caused to others is purely accidental.
Many other local issues also were kicked to the curb, thanks to the enthusiasm of antismokers, who signed up in such numbers at City Council that a special rule was instituted, limiting the time for each speaker to one minute. While antismokers babbled on and on about their right to enter someone else's establishment and dictate how they were going to be served, a woman in a wheelchair whose house was flooding had her time cut short. While antismokers touted their right to eradicate the rights of others, the family of a woman on death row wasn't given ample time to make the case for what seems to be her innocence. And apparently few people noticed when the homeless population was removed from the Pierce Elevated and dumped in low-income neighborhoods around town.
Thin in the End
Lisa Line has always been a looker. Even now, post-childbirth and firmly in her thirties, she has a thin waist and curves everywhere else. You can chalk some of it up to diet, but puffing half a pack a day definitely helps.
Fact: Smoking burns 200 calories a day.
Lisa knows her insides might be less than stellar, but she doesn't see much point in living forever. "Okay, so we're going to be in adult diapers, no teeth, drinking our food through a straw?" she says, copping a bit from comedian Denis Leary. "Take those fucking years. I don't want 'em."
Fact: Houston is America's fattest city, at least according to Men's Fitness. We won this dubious title back from Detroit, after holding it two years straight. The magazine's methods are far from scientifically rigorous, but one look around (and we do mean "around") testifies to how big we have all become.
"Put that chicken leg down and take a puff," advises Lisa, only half jokingly.
Fact: Obesity has been linked to all kinds of diseases and health conditions, including hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, gallbladder disease, strokes, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and cancer.
The prevalence of diabetes has nearly doubled in the American adult population over the last ten years, thanks in part to our burgeoning obesity epidemic. This phenomenon has engendered a new term: diabesity.
Fact: Diabesity kills, and it leaves a super-sized corpse.
We're not suggesting that everyone out there take up smoking as a means of staying thin, although it would make for a more attractive populace.
What we are suggesting is that City Council overstepped its bounds by enacting the smoking ban, placing the success of the hospitality industry and its workers in jeopardy, all the while ignoring the social benefits of smoking as well as a slew of more pressing issues. Kids shouldn't take up smoking, but when it comes to rational adults, we think choice is a good thing.
Call us crazy.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.