Texas may get indoor smoking ban

AUSTIN - Texas lawmakers have been trying to pass a statewide indoor smoking ban since 2007. This year could be the year it happens.

“We lose 49,000 Americans a year to heart disease and stroke because of secondhand smoke,” said Lake Dallas Republican State Representative Myra Crownover . “We lose 400,000 Americans a year to direct smoking. This is outrageous.”

Crownover’s bill would add requirements for smoke free environments to licenses issued to restaurants and bars by health departments and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission .

“That deals with things like keeping milk at the right temperature, keeping the facilities clean, having people wash their hands,” Crownover said, “and it makes no sense that you would go into a restaurant or a bar expecting a clean facility and breathe arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde.”

The legislation would make Texas the first state in the South to enact an indoor smoking ban that applies not only to bars and restaurants, but to offices and other indoor public areas, as well. That does not necessarily make the state a leader, though.

“Twenty-nine states have already gone smoke-free,” said James Gray, the Director of Legislative and Government Affairs for Smoke Free Texas . “In Texas, 35 communities have already gone smoke-free: Dallas, Houston, Austin and others. Where that positions us is to know exactly what will happen.”

Gray points to research that supports the notion that banning second hand indoor smoke results in public health benefits very quickly.

“We know that cardiovascular disease can be agitated with a 30 minute exposure to secondhand smoke, asthma, emphysema, low birth weight babies.” said Gray. “So there is an immediate effect with, or adverse effect to exposure from secondhand smoke. And so as soon as you take it out of the workplace, that effect is gone.”

Indeed, during the two years between this legislative session and the 2009 gathering of lawmakers, the State Department of Health and Human Services studied the issue and predicted a smoking ban would save the state’s share of Medicaid expenses in the neighborhood of $30 million, in the next two years alone.

Research done by Smoke Free Texas says if the overall cost to the Texas economy was taken into account the biennial savings would exceed $400 million.

Numbers like that have a nice ring to senators and representatives struggling to climb out of a massive budget hole.

“We have strong support in the House,” said Gray. “We have 80-plus members who have signed onto the House bill. It was one of the first bills to come out of committee in the Senate, so if we get something moving on the House side, that will really create some urgency on the Senate side and hopefully you’ll see some of that support really galvanize.”

The smoking ban bill was actually poised for consideration by the full House last week, but Crownover decided to withdraw it on the very day of a deadline to consider House bills.

“I pulled it down then because I knew that it would take some time in debate,” she said. “I pulled it down in respect for other members’ bills, so that they could get those heard.”

That, of course, is one way to win friends and influence people.

“There was a sigh of relief, yes,” Crownover laughed.

But she had another idea up her sleeve. A budget-related “fiscal matters” bill is due up for debate before the full house Wednesday, May 18. It contains language relating to health issues and the representative intends to offer her smoking ban as an amendment to that bill, arguing that because it would save the state money, including the proposal in the fiscal matters legislation would conform to House rules.

“Momentum is building for this bill,” Crownover said.

Gray, the lobbyist for Smoke Free Texas, agrees.

“Here’s something that the legislature can do that costs no money, whatsoever,” he said, “and creates significant economic return on investment, but also significant improvement to the public health of Texans.”

But despite the momentum the smoking ban appears to have, the state budget already passed by the House of Representatives takes away all the money the health department uses for a program that helps people quit smoking . It also cuts money the comptroller’s office uses to send grants to local law enforcement agencies , grants that help them keep tobacco out of the hands of children. But at Smoke Free Texas, folks are not too worried about all that.

“That’s a struggle,” Gray said. “It’s always been a struggle to keep tobacco control funds in the budget and it’s unfortunate because these programs are very effective. But once we pass the law, organizations like the American Cancer Society and others will work with the various state agencies to provide those resources. So we might not have the same resources at State Health Services for tobacco cessation that we had two years ago, but my organization, as well as others, are gearing up for when that outcome does happen. We can provide that support; that’s what we do well and we’re very happy to take on that extra work when and if it does happen.”

With the debate centered on those kinds of issues, Crownover is optimistic that the road to a statewide indoor smoking ban is about to reach its destination.

“In the past, people said, ‘Oh this is about private property rights.’ You don’t have private property rights to kill people. You don’t have individual liberties to take someone’s health. Why I love this issue is that it’s an education issue: The more you talk about it, the more impossible it becomes to defend having somebody have the right to take away somebody else’s health.”

By Jim Swift

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