Smoking is not allowed in most public places in Abilene, but about 10 miles south of town, patrons of the Bar-B-Que Barn in Buffalo Gap are still permitted to pull up a bar stool and light a cigarette.
Currently, Texas cities decide on an individual basis whether to allow smoking in public, but that may change if a proposed statewide smoking ban gets support from lawmakers in Austin.
A pair of bills has been filed in the Texas House and Senate that would prohibit smoking in most public places, including places of employment, restaurants, bars and seating areas at outdoor events.
Private residences, nursing homes, certain hotel rooms, tobacco shops, private clubs and the outdoor porches and patios of restaurants and bars are among the places that would be exempt from the law.
Local business owners oppose the bill and say the state should stay out of their decision to allow or prohibit smoking, but public health officials say secondhand smoke is dangerous and needs to be eliminated from public places.
The House version of the bill (HB 670) was taken up by the Public Health Committee on Wednesday, and the upper chamber’s version (SB 355) was discussed in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday.
Similar bills calling for a ban were proposed in 2009, but the measure did not pass before the end of the session.
State Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, is a member of the House’s Public Health Committee and has signed on as one of 34 representatives who are authoring or co-authoring the statewide smoking ban bill.
Reached Wednesday between meetings, King said she supports the bill as a health care professional. King, a nurse, co-owns the Elm Place Ambulatory Surgical Center with her husband, Dr. Austin King.
As a matter of individual liberty, King said Texans will still have the right to smoke, but the places where they are allowed to light up will be restricted.
King said 11 people testified in favor of the bill on Wednesday and two testified against it. Several people filled out forms expressing opposition but did not testify before the committee.
The bill is still pending, but King predicted it will pass out of committee and be presented to the full House for consideration.
She said she expects stiff opposition from business owners who are worried that a ban would push patrons away.
In Buffalo Gap, Cindy Schranz, owner of the Bar-B-Que Barn, said she believes a statewide smoking ban would hurt her business.
Smoking has been permitted in the tap room since the restaurant opened in the late 1960s, but the dining room is smoke-free.
When Abilene passed a smoking ordinance in 2007, the Bar-B-Que Barn picked up customers who like to smoke while they sit over a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer, Schranz said. She said she fears a ban will push them away, especially because she doesn’t have an outdoor patio where they could smoke.
Schranz, a smoker, said she believes a ban would do little to entice smokers to quit. All but one of her employees smoke.
“I’d just sit in my car a lot more or go 20 feet from the door,” Schranz said.
Jerry Gibson, general manager of the Wes-T-Go Truck Stop in Tye, said he believes his business would be affected by a statewide smoking ban to some degree.
Patrons are still allowed to choose between smoking and nonsmoking sections in the truck stop’s restaurant.
Gibson said he couldn’t speak for his employees’ support or opposition to a statewide ban, but he said he hasn’t heard them complain about the atmosphere.
“What you find is most people who work in a place that has smoking, a lot of them smoke, so it does not bother them,” Gibson said.
Under the proposed law, business owners would be required to post “no smoking” signs at each entrance and to remove all ashtrays from areas that are declared smoke-free.
Supporters of the ban say it would protect employees from a harmful workplace environment.
“No one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck,” according to Smoke-Free Texas, a coalition of organizations backing the bill.
According to the coalition, 34 Texas cities and 45 percent of Texans are covered by comprehensive smoke-free workplace ordinances. Also, 29 states already are smoke-free and seven states are considering legislation that would outlaw smoking.
Just a handful of cities in the Big Country have smoking bans, and Abilene’s is the most stringent, according to a database of smoking ordinances maintained by the University of Texas Medical Branch.
The city of Abilene’s smoking ordinance outlaws smoking in most public places, but it’s too early to tell how the city’s current ordinance would be affected if a statewide ban passes, said Kelley Messer assistant city attorney.
If the ban passes as proposed, it would supersede any existing bans in Texas cities. However, municipalities would be allowed to enforce bans that are more stringent than the state’s ban.
By Sarah Kleiner Varble