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Smoking ban gets fogged at Music Commission

Tuesday, August 2, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

A preliminary proposal to ban smoking on all patios in Austin was met with pushback and prompt backpedaling at a meeting of the Music Commission on Monday.

Proposed by Central Health, a taxpayer-funded district in Travis County, a potential amendment to Austin’s smoking ban was expected to come before City Council in late 2016, according to Central Health Communications Director Ted Burton last month. Don Pitts, manager of the city of Austin’s Music and Entertainment Division, said at Monday’s meeting that the initiative was nowhere near formalized, however, and that Central Health staff had not yet met with city staff about it.

Nevertheless, several venue representatives and music commissioners spoke out at Monday’s meeting against a potential amendment expanding the city’s smoking ban.

“Just help me understand. … Central Health brought this forward,” said Commissioner Toby Baker. “How is this part of their mission? Their mission is providing people access – underinsured (and) uninsured – to health care, correct?”

No representative from Central Health was on hand at the meeting to answer Baker’s question, but Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, an advocacy group for Austin’s music industry, provided some background.

Houlihan said several members of Central Health approached AMP a few months ago about the initiative. In polling local venues, they determined that opinions about the proposal were “all over the map,” she said. Some had gone through the trouble of installing patios after the 2005 smoking ban that prohibited lighting up inside businesses. Other local businesses, she added, opened after the original 2005 ordinance.

Pitts added that the proposal to expand the ban stemmed from the Central Health Equity Policy Council, a group underneath Central Health that is made up of health-care professionals, government officials, educators, nonprofit members and businesspeople. The council’s goal is to advance health equity and wellness policies for Travis County residents.

Cody Cowan, general manager of the Mohawk, a music venue, and member of the Red River Cultural District, said the additional patio ban would affect venue owners and their ability to stay open.

“We’re spending a lot of our time in commissions and in talks with lobbyists and other groups, just in order to get back to work fighting the hard fight to get customers to come in to fight the rising costs of business,” Cowan said. “This is really a disappointing step forward for those of us in the music industry to see this additional, somewhat punitive, action being taken or considered.”

Cowan said that, in general, venue owners operate on about a 5 percent profit margin and that a smoking ban would harm a lot of large-patio venues.

“A lot of the businesses that existed (in 2005) had to spend at least several thousands to create (patios),” Cowan said. “After that ordinance, a lot of people caught on to the necessity of a large patio space, not only for that social piece, but for outdoor live music and food trucks. You’re hard (pressed) to find new spaces that haven’t built their models almost entirely around those points.”

Pitts, reading a statement from Central Health, added that Central Health’s council is “taking a step back (from the proposal) to determine with our partners how best to move forward.” Pitts said he will be meeting with Central Health representatives Thursday and that brief discussions about possible alternative actions to a ban — such as smoking cessation wellness or public awareness initiatives — have been met with positive responses on both ends. He said that depending on discussions, commissioners could see a related agenda item in the upcoming months.

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