Smoking attitudes changing in Amarillo

Smoking attitudes changing in Amarillo

By John Kanelis

Sometimes you can win without winning.

So it seems with a once-intense effort to enact an Amarillo city ordinance that would have banned smoking indoors in establishments that serve the public and are open to public access.

Two ballot measures – one in 2005 and another in 2008 – sought to bring that change to the city. Both times the measures failed by virtually the same margin.

Is it time to bring the issue back for yet another vote? Is it time to enact a citywide ban on indoor smoking?

One of the advocates of that movement, Mary Coyne – an Amarillo advertising and marketing executive – thinks there might no longer be a compelling need to enact a citywide ordinance.

"We lost both elections by the exact same margin," Coyne said, "even though our second run at it was much more sophisticated. What that tells me is that people around here don't change their minds and another run at it probably wouldn't yield different results."

But Coyne sees some good news in the failed efforts to enact the ordinance. She said, "Many restaurants and several bars have voluntarily gone smoke-free since our ordinance drives because they have come to realize it's good for business. Most paying customers don't want to smell smoke while they eat and drink."

Coyne said so many of these establishments have gone smoke-free that "many of us can for weeks without ever smelling cigarette smoke. Because of that, it's hard to get people whipped up enough to go vote for a tougher smoking ordinance."

She said her group "raised a lot of awareness and helped change the culture here as it relates to smoking freely everywhere. It's interesting to me to see how many bars that have made the leap of faith to go smoke-free and help their musicians and workers have a better work environment."

The Golden Light Café and Cantina is owned by an individual who did a complete about-face on the issue of smoking.

The establishment, which is located in the Historic Route 66 District on Sixth Avenue, used to allow smoking everywhere. There were no areas designated for smokers, or areas set aside for non-smokers or those who didn't want to breathe the second-hand smoke while they were inside the establishment.

Since the elections, the Golden Light Cantina has gone completely smoke-free. The business owner, Angela Corpening, made that "leap of faith" by banning smoking.

And she doesn't regret it one bit.

Corpening bought the Golden Light in 2006, when smoking was still allowed throughout the establishment. She said she had worked there since 2000, including while she was attending West Texas A&M University, where she earned two master's degrees: in business administration and in finance/economics.

"We made the restaurant smoke-free in 2008," Corpening said, "and the bar went smoke-free in 2012."

Corpening said she still opposes the idea of City Hall mandating whether businesses should prohibit smoking, but said "it was the right thing to do."

She admitted to being "a little apprehensive" about banning smoking in the bar area, and said she "took a lot of heat from angry customers when I did it."

Since then, though, she's gotten more business than she had when smoking was allowed in the bar area. "Overall, it's been the best decision I ever made," she said.

Corpening also noted that "a lot of touring bands stipulate that they won't play in venues where smoking is allowed," citing two of them: Shiny Ribs and Uncle Lucius. Both of those bands are "pretty big and they won't play where there's smoke in the room."

Coyne described the difference between the first and second campaigns. "During the 2008 campaign, we had to submit a lot more signatures on the petition to put the issue on the ballot because there was such a big turnout in the previous election," Coyne said, noting the city referendum requirements under the municipal election code.

"We were able to organize a phone bank and we identified those who favored the (smoking ban) ordinance," she said.

"We tried to use some state-of-the-art techniques," Coyne said, "but people already had made up their minds."

The smoking ban debate turned on the health risks associated with breathing second-hand smoke, she said, noting that the group – Breathe Easy Amarillo – enlisted the help of medical professionals, such as Dr. James Luce, an oncologist who's now retired and living in Albuquerque. "He had seen and treated plenty of people who had come down with cancer," Coyne said. "Dr. Luce understood the risks involved with second-hand smoke," she said.

"We've made some huge inroads," Coyne said of the effort to change people's minds about smoking. She noted that in 2001, "about 48 percent of high school seniors said they had smoked a cigarette at least once in the past 30 days. Today, those numbers are way down."

Coyne also said she is "shocked" at how many restaurants "and even bars" have gone smoke-free. "The number of smoke-free eating and drinking establishments was much less before this drive," she said.

Coyne also said that she believes "a lot of restaurant owners wanted to go smoke-free but wanted to be forced to do it. They wanted the city to tell them" to ban smoking. Others, however – such as Corpening – opposed mandates being handed down from City Hall.

She said the debate over the proposed ordinance "gave us an opportunity to have a great dialogue. It's too bad it didn't turn out the way we wanted, but we think now that people really understand a lot better the harm that is caused by smoking."

And for Corpening, the difference also involves personal hygiene.

"You can come here, eat and drink, have a good time, listen to music," she said, "and then leave – and not have to take a shower when you get home."