McAllen passes smoke-free ordinance

Last week the McAllen city commission voted in favor of a smoke-free ordinance. This sent some people into a frenzy and other people into planning mode. The dust has settled and now the pieces of the puzzle are being shuffled to see who comes out on top of a vibrant bar scene.

The ordinance was a long time coming for the Tobacco Prevention and Control Coalition, one of nine coalitions across Texas on a five-year grant to help put smoke-free ordinances in place where the state sees a need. When McAllen placed their ordinance in place they became the 84th city to do so. In Hidalgo county only Edcouch, Progreso and Sullivan City do not have a smoking ordinance.

Gilda Bowen, the coordinator for the coalition which is located in Pharr, said smoking should be a focus based on public health. By passing the smoke-free ordinances the workplace becomes a healthier environment for employees of bars.

Bad For Business?

When a smoke-free ordinance is passed, bar owners are usually first to show the most resistance shortly after it has been finalized.

“The biggest misunderstanding is that it is bad for business,” Bowen said. “There have been studies shown by looking at sales revenue, there has either been no drop or, in some instances, an increase in revenue.”

Both has been true for Fast Eddie's in Edinburg and Eddy's Social Tavern on Nolana Avenue. Fast Eddie's and Eddy's Social Tavern are part of a large chain of pool halls across Texas and in Louisiana. Pool halls were, up until recently, one place people could go, shoot some pool and smoke cigarettes while playing. Smoking and shooting pool has been synonymous since Paul Newman made it cool in the Oscar-Winning classic The Hustler.

In 2015 the City of Edinburg spearheaded the coalition's effort by becoming the first city in Hidalgo County to put a smoke-free ordinance in place. Fast Eddie's suffered drastically because their smoking clientele jumped ship to shoot pool in McAllen since Eddy's still allowed smoking.

But Fast Eddie's Regional Manager John Ramirez thinks this new smoke-free ordinance will level the playing field to his advantage. Ramirez put Fast Eddie's ownership at ease by telling them in the long run the older crowd worried about health, more couples and more women will frequent Eddy's Social Tavern.

“As big as McAllen is, in the long run it will bring us more customers,” he said. “It has been an experience that the owners have gone through in all their clubs so it will come down to whoever has the nicest patio.”

The employees loved the idea of a smoke-free pool hall. Ramirez has a split list when it comes to employees smoking and not smoking. More pool players will enjoy it.

“I don't care,” one shooter playing three-cushion billiards said. “I'll just go outside.”

Personally Ramirez could not be happier. He has been at the helm of a bar for over 30 years inhaling second-hand smoke. He remembers the studies coming out by the Surgeon General saying second-hand smoke was harmful. Then he recalled when saying hot smoke being inhaled was worse than second-hand smoke.

No matter the case study, the damage had been done. Ramirez knows of the toxic build up in his lungs caused by second-hand smoke.

“I'm still able to play golf, cut the grass and walk two miles,” he said. “But I'm glad the smoke-free ordinance is in place.”

Fast Eddie's in Edinburg is still running slow, according to Ramirez. But Edinburg has never been a night area until recently. The population grows exponentially with the courthouse and the university during the day but at night McAllen becomes the destination for drinks and going out.

Bowen goes back to the issue of public health. And in speaking with Ramirez it was only evident.

Someone that works in a bar is usually someone going to school, a single parent or in need of a second job. Working at a bar is probably the most convenient type of job one can do because it is cash-money and the bar will work around all schedules.

“The last thing anyone is going to think about now is having health problems in 20 years,” Bowen said. “They just don't think about it.”

The Coalition is currently conducting a study to find out if bars and other places of that nature lose revenue in the long run. Results are yet to be finalized.

Bowen said with regular inquiry from businesses, especially corporation establishments like Chili's and Applebee's, there has been positive feedback. The restaurants are not only more cleaner but healthier for people to frequent.

In the long run bars will need to adjust with the ordinance. Which is why Ramirez said the location with the best facilities will gain the more clients.

El Divino, which has a cigar lounge will have to cease operations in that area of their establishment. A restaurant first and foremost, management at El Divino enclosed a room with a separate ventilation to have a cigar lounge. But once the ordinance is enforced the lounge will turn into a speakeasy.

In McAllen if more than 40 percent of revenue comes from the sale of tobacco products smoking will be permitted. Cigar bars like Casa Petrides and Il Regalo Preferito fall under that window of sales.

Another place where smoking will be permitted are bingo halls. Lobbyists for the bingo halls used Austin, one of the healthiest cities in the state, as an example to convince the authors of the ordinance to allow their customers to smoke.

“That was the compromise,” Bowen said of the ordinance. “Do we want to protect everybody? Yes. But that was a smaller community and there are other bingo halls that are smoke-free.”

Enforcement- the next challenge

Steven Kotsatos, Director of Health and Code for McAllen, runs the department that will be in charge of enforcing the ordinance once it goes into effect Jan. 1. He thinks people will self-police when it comes to smoking but if a formal complaint is filed, the department will investigate.

In the beginning people usually ask the question is this allowed? It comes with learning something new. But Kotsatos assured that places with registered city permits will need to be up to code when it comes to the smoke-free ordinances.

“We're going to enforce it,” Kotsatos said.

The self-policing happens in most cases throughout the county. Bowen said Pharr is the only city that has issued a citation. Once the ordinance is in place establishments tend to follow the rules. Realistically, it will take a while to take effect but the public needed to be on board with having the cities smoke-free.

“With a policy in place,” Bowen said. “It is going to come to a point where they're not going to be able to look the other way.”