Austin health organization wants to ban smoking on bar, restaurant patios

The Central Health Equity Policy Council is hoping to amend Austin’s Smoking in Public Places Ordinance.

“Tobacco, we always say, kills more than AIDS, crack, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, car accidents, fire, murder and suicide combined. And it's entirely preventable,” said Dr. Phil Huang with the City of Austin Health and Human Services Department. 

The proposed amendment would ban electronic cigarettes anywhere smoking is prohibited. It would also ban smoking or vaping on patios at bars and restaurants.

“I definitely would choose not to stick around if I was near someone smoking,” said Aubrey Wilkerson who often visits bars in East Austin.

Smoking is already banned inside of bars, restaurants and music venues. So far, electronic cigarettes have slipped through the cracks. Central Health said it's time to add them to the indoor smoking ban.

“One of the things about electronic cigarettes is that they're very new now, so I think there's a lot of information that's lacking and people don't know, but people can't say they're safe,” Huang said. 

“I'd say, if they're going to propose the vaping inside ban, I agree with that. I think that that should be outside where it's more comfortable for people,” said Denis O’Donnell, co-owner of The White Horse.

The other amendment to the ordinance is more controversial. Central Health would like to prohibit smoking and vaping on patios at bars and restaurants.

“What’s been seen is that in those outdoor settings, within proximity of six feet or so, you can actually get exposure levels that are comparable to that you would see in indoor settings with secondhand smoke,” said Huang. 

O’Donnell said that kind of ban would create problems many bars aren't prepared to handle.

“Having half of our patrons having unattended drinks sitting inside, not knowing whose drink it is, that's a safety issue as well,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell said he would have to have a bouncer whose sole responsibility would be to make sure drinks don't go in and out of the bar. And having customers standing on the street would be a serious liability.

“Now, they have walked off of my property and I am still liable as a business owner for their safety,” said O’Donnell.

Not to mention the effect it could have on revenue if O’Donnell’s customers take their butts somewhere else.

“Austin has a massive nightlife, more so than most cities, so it would be a serious economic blow for all of us,” he said. 

“You hear this narrative about that it's going to lower attendance at bars, but you never hear the flip side of people who don't go out because of smoking,” Wilkerson said. 

Central Health expects to bring the amended ordinance to City Council between November and December. O’Donnell said he and other industry leaders will fight until it goes up in smoke.