Houston: Smoke-Free City

Houston's comprehensive smoking ban went into effect over the weekend. The ban means all restaurants, bars and clubs are completely smoke-free. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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The Houston ordinance turns all restaurants, bars and taverns inside city limits into smoke-free zones. Bar managers had to remove all ashtrays and put up no smoking signs. Houston Mayor Bill White says the city gave both patrons and bar employees ample warning about the changes and he expects the restaurant/bar industry to comply.

"It's within the rights of a patron of one of these establishments to point out to the owner if somebody is violating the particular ordinance. We will be giving checklists. We put out rules and regulations on August 17th. We have checklists provided to various inspectors. We will be listening and taking citizens' complaints."

The city only has two smoking inspectors to enforce the ban. They've also trained restaurant inspectors to watch for violations. But the reality is in a city the size of Houston, enforcement will be largely self-imposed. Rick Costello is the general manager of the Home Plate Bar & Grill, across the street from Minute Maid Park. He says he's not worried about the business' bottom line, but he is concerned about tension between patrons.

"Somehow the city's policy seems to create more tension than anything because they're going to have customers approaching other customers and you know hopefully it won't ensue in arguments or fights."

Mayor White acknowledges the customers are the ones most likely to keep the smoking ban enforced, but he says there's no need for it to cause tension or get ugly.

"Non-smokers, and I would ask non-smokers to be polite. I've seen some people go nuts, but be polite and be respectful in requesting the owner of the establishment to remind people of what the law is. And I think that the vast majority of owners are responsible and they'll do so."

Outside the B.U.S., another downtown sports bar, a group of friends are standing in the shade smoking. One of them, a young man named Freddy, says he thinks most people are already used to the idea of the smoking ban.

"I don't smoke unless I drink, but if I do it's not going to be as much. It's one or two at the max, if so I'll go outside and catch some fresh air. But other than that it's a good thing because a lot of people in bars don't smoke anyway so it does distract them."

Houston is one of the most recent major cities to enact the ban, along with New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Dallas and Austin. Dozens of smaller municipalities have similar bans. And as far as restaurant and bar employees go, Bartender Nikki Parton puts it this way.

"Not smelling like an ashtray is not really going to be horrible."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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