A city ordinance proposed to ban smoking in the “public places” of San Marcos would be a step backward for the local economy and an unnecessary affront to property rights of business owners.
According to a city poll, 47 percent of San Marcos residents support the “Clean Air Act.” The ordinance would regulate tobacco smoking in “public places,” a term not yet clearly defined but that can be presumed to mean all public business establishments within city limits. Before any real discussion of the merits of the act can continue, its scope and enforcement policies need to be confirmed.
However, scope and enforcement are both potentially problematic aspects of the plan regardless of how they are written. Though the ordinance likely would not single out downtown bars, residents would be hard-pressed to find any other type of public establishment that does allow smoking indoors. In a display of little more than extra red tape, businesses that depend entirely on tobacco use, such as Stratosphere and Hill Country Humidor, will presumably be burdened with obtaining new permits.
The decision to permit smoking on private property ought to be left completely to the owners of buildings and businesses. In a culture that values private property rights as much as Texas’ does, forcing owners into these decisions is a severe overreach of local government. The City of San Antonio, which enacted a similar ban in 2011, has announced business conditions have improved. However, economic conditions in general have improved since then and there is no clear causal link between smoking bans and improved business. It is this editorial board’s opinion that economic decisions are best left to those whose livelihood depends on them, and the owners of San Marcos’ bars have decided. Compromises, such as the non-smoking section of Treff’s Tavern, can arise without the city’s heavy-handed input.
City Councilmember Jude Prather, Place 2, missed this point at the Aug. 20 council meeting when he asked if voters wanted “to infringe on the right of those who want to breathe clean air.” Hyperbolic language like this does nothing to promote meaningful discussion and unfairly vilifies those who support private owners’ rights. Residents already have every right to breathe cleanly by avoiding bars, which are hardly shrines to public health, even without the smoke. If people are concerned enough about their personal health that they are willing to interfere with the rights of both property owners and their fellow customers, it is worth asking why they are drinking at a bar to begin with.
Enforcement presents an equally tricky predicament. The San Marcos Police Department has far more worthwhile tasks on The Square at night than handing out tickets to smokers, and the still-hazy state of Texas State’s campus tobacco ban shows how ineffective such enforcement methods can be. It is more likely, then, that the city will simply fine businesses that turn a blind eye to smoking patrons. This puts managers and owners in the uncomfortable role of enforcing rules they do not support against their own customers, many of whom are regulars who have been smoking there for years.
The University Star’s editorial board, most of whom are non-smokers, appreciates clean air as much as anyone else. However, smoking bans set a disturbing precedent of government overreach that has to be kept in check. Though 47 percent of poll respondents agreed with the proposal, it is highly improbable that nearly half the city’s population frequents The Square, where changes would be most apparent. The ordinance, then, would unfairly target college students and downtown regulars whose habits are already reasonably contained to bars, among those who have accepted the health risks of a night on the town and away from the more sensitive lungs of children.