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Monday, May 23, 2011

Texas House Approves Statewide Smoking Ban As Part Of Fiscal Bill


Restaurants, bars and other indoor public places in every corner of Texas would have to be smoke-free by this fall under a bill the House approved Saturday.

The measure, which includes the statewide smoking cigarettes prohibition as an amendment, now heads to a conference committee of House members and senators who will work out differences between the two chambers on the legislation. Although the Senate version did not include the smoking cigarettes ban, supporters of the idea say they have support from a majority of senators.

Passage of the anti-smoking cigarettes proposal would cap several years of efforts to get it through the Legislature based on evidence about the harmful effects of secondhand smoke cigarettes on nonsmokers.

The vote in the House was 73-66; several critics mainly Republicans attacked the prohibition as a violation of property rights.

The main legislation, a fiscal matters bill that is crucial to the House-Senate agreement on a new state budget, passed Saturday, 100-44. One of its main provisions is an accounting maneuver that would free up about $2 billion by moving the last state payment to school districts in the 2012-13 fiscal year to the next fiscal year.

Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, offered the smoking cigarettes ban, terming it "an elegant little amendment that will save thousands of Texas lives and millions of Texas dollars."

State health officials, she said, estimate that the state would save $30 million in Medicaid expenses by enacting the smoking cigarettes ban. That's money that would otherwise be spent treating medical problems related to smoking cigarettes.

"Only 17 percent of the population smokes," she said. "It is important to protect the other 83 percent from benzene, arsenic, cyanide and other particulate matters that are present in secondhand smoke. All we're doing is asking smokers to step outside when they want a cigarette."

Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, called the proposal "just more big government imposing its will on people."

"This is an issue of personal freedom," he said. "Businesses don't need a government edict to tell them what to do. Many have already voluntarily banned smoking cigarettes on their premises."

Further, he argued, "If smoking cigarettes is so bad, we should ban it like drugs. But we're not going to do that because it would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue."

Over Crownover's objections, Elkins won approval from House members to exempt fraternal organizations and charitable bingo games. On another amendment, the House voted to exempt pool halls.

The Texas Restaurant Association supported the legislation, which had been tied up in a House committee, prompting Crownover to offer it as an amendment to the state fiscal matters bill.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, author of a smoking cigarettes ban bill in the Senate, said he believes the Crownover amendment will remain intact.

"It should stay in the legislation because a majority of senators support it," he said. In addition, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst supports the prohibition against smoking cigarettes in indoor public places.

Anti-smoking cigarettes groups urged the Senate to follow the House's lead.

The ban "will protect the health of Texas employees in bars and restaurants while providing much-needed budget savings for our state," said Claudia Rodas, co-chair of the Smoke-Free Texas Coalition. "Now is the time for our senators to finish the job."

Asked why the smoking cigarettes ban applies only indoors, Crownover told House members that medical studies indicate secondhand smoke cigarettes mostly affects people in indoor places, while there is much less evidence of harmful effects outside, such as in the patio area of a restaurant.

"We have tried to be very careful to follow the science," said Crownover, whose husband, former Rep. Ronny Crownover, died from medical problems related to smoking cigarettes.

Thirty states ban smoking cigarettes in most public places, as do several Texas cities, including Dallas.

About 400,000 Americans die from conditions related to direct smoke cigarettes annually ,and 53,000 are estimated to die from causes related to secondhand smoke.

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