AUSTIN - A bill meant to snuff out smoking in most bars and restaurants in Texas tentatively passed the House on Monday, but not before opponents drastically weakened it, leaving its future in doubt.
Supporters say the bill is needed to protect workers and customers from potentially deadly secondhand smoke. But opponents successfully badgered it until they could force a key exemption for business property owners who want to allow smoking.
The smoking ban seemed to have recovered from a near-defeat Friday but staggered further Monday before it passed 91-48.
Now in its weakened state, the bill still needs a final House vote before it goes to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle to survive.
Myra Crownover, the Lake Dallas Republican pushing the measure, said the ban is needed to protect workers and other people regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
“Our attempt is to save lives. Secondhand smoke kills,” Crownover said, vowing to try to get the bill back to its original, stronger form. “Nothing is ever finished until it signed by the governor.”
The biggest fight came over an attempt to exempt bars, which Crownover argued would have defeated the purpose of the bill. The bar exemption had been placed in the bill Friday, but was removed after negotiations over the weekend.
But Crownover later accepted an amendment that allows property owners — not always the bar or restaurant operator — to decide if smoking will be allowed. The owner would have to post a sign in a conspicuous place noting that smoking is permitted.
Crownover acknowledged that the exemption punches a huge hole in the ban.
“I will work very hard,” to take it out, she said.
The bill includes other exemptions for bingo and VFW halls and bars that offer their employees health insurance. Cities could also opt out if local voters can get the issue on the May 2008 ballot.
Seventeen states, including California and New York, have comprehensive smoking bans; 13 others are considering them. Houston, Austin, El Paso and other Texas cities already have comprehensive smoking bans.
Smoke-Free Texas, a coalition of the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association and Texas PTA, is pushing the measure. The groups released a poll showing that a majority of Texans favor a statewide smoking ban in public places.
Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer, heart disease, low birth rate and other chronic lung problems and kills 53,000 Americans a year, according to Smoke-Free Texas.
Opponents railed against the measure as a violation of private property rights, bad for business and mean to smokers.
Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, tried to exempt bars from the ban but was consistently defeated on several votes.
“If you want to outlaw smoking, you ought to add (tobacco) to the controlled substances list. That would be the end of it,” Dutton said. “We’ve got to treat every bar the same.”
If ultimately passed, the ban would be another major swipe at smokers in a year. Lawmakers boosted their per-pack taxes by $1 last year to help pay for public schools.
In protest, Rep. Terri Hodge, a smoker, offered an amendment Monday to ban smoking and the sale of cigarettes in Texas. It was defeated.
“This body has made it a habit to take on the smokers like they are nonvoters … This is a personalized attack,” Hodge said. “Let’s make everybody healthy in Texas.”
The smoking ban bill is HB9.