Gray matter

Galveston Island's weakened smoking ban returns it to "the 1970s" as a fight lights up

Galveston Island's weakened smoking ban returns it to "the 1970s" as a fight lights up

Galveston Island is a land of contradictions: Its tourism marketing places them somewhere between New Orleans and South Padre Island, and yet there is a struggle to ban or allow one of America's most common vices.

They are cool with tar on your feet, but not in your lungs.

When cities as diverse and historically smoker-friendly as New York, Paris, Dublin and Houston have enacted complete bans on smoking in bars and restaurants, its no surprise that Galveston would follow suit. But the ban, voted in on July of 2009 and enacted on Jan. 1 of this year, was one of the strictest in the state, banning people from lighting up not only inside restaurants and bars but also in private clubs and fraternal organizations, in outdoor seating areas and within 15 feet of a doorway or window to a building where smoking is prohibited.

Unlike the blase acceptance most cities have seen in response to smoking bans, this stringency seems to have inspired some backlash.

In February a group of 20 bar and restaurant owners sued the city and the city council, alleging that the ban adversely affected their property values and that Galveston officials did not comply with state law by failing to perform a takings analysis before enacting such a rule.

Despite a public forum strongly in favor of keeping the ban, the city council recently voted voted 4-3 to amend and substantially weaken the ban, getting rid of many of the controversial provisions. In effect on Oct. 4, bars that qualify as "adult venues" — meaning only that they do not admit anyone under the age of 18 — will be free to allow smoking indoors. Private clubs and outdoor seating areas are also no longer affected by the ban, and the area required to stay clear of windows and doors was reduced from 15 to five feet.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton, who voted to keep the existing ban in place, described the changes as going “back to the 1970s.”

Of course the actual changes will only bring Galveston back to December 31, 2009. Mass smoking an all manner of buildings is not going to happen. Most restaurants and bars already had a policy in place to ban smoking in certain areas and allow it in others to accommodate different patrons. This won't change, and the fact that bars are free to allow smoking doesn't mean that all will choose to do so.

That some owners wanted a law to fall back on to justify a non-smoking policy is pretty spineless — making all establishments conform to your rules so that upset customers don't have anywhere else to go instead.

Anti-smoking supporters are not giving up the fight, however. According to the Galveston Daily News, The Galveston Clean Air Project was formed by Alice Melott and is campaigning to turn the issue over to the voters in the May 2011 election. The organization's Facebook group, Keep Galveston Smoke-Free, was founded immediately after the city council vote last Thursday and already has over 450 fans.

What do you think of the weakened smoking regulations? Is it step back into a dirtier, unhealthier past or is it a sensible compromise?

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Smoking on the patio is legal again in Galveston — but for how long? File photo
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