Armstrong Hopes to Snuff Smoking in Texas

Lance Armstrong is taking a brief detour from his cycling comeback and getting back into the rough-and-tumble world of Texas politics.

On Thursday, the seven-time Tour de France champion returns to the Texas Capitol to put his celebrity and expertise behind an anti-smoking bill in the Legislature. He is scheduled to appear at a news conference to release public polling data showing widespread support for a ban on smoking in public places.

It won't be the first time Armstrong, one of the world's most famous athletes, has ventured into the political arena. In 2007, he was instrumental in helping pass a multibillion dollar bond initiative to pay for cancer research and he has hosted televised cancer forums with candidates for president.

Supporters of the smoking ban, which failed two years ago, are counting on him to put the same kind of pizazz into their cause.

"The comeback is as much about bringing awareness to this fight against cancer as it is about winning the Tour de France," Armstrong told The Associated Press on Wednesday, three days after finishing 29th at the Tour of Australia. "It all ties in and these are all key parts."

According to the Smoke-Free Texas coalition, which includes the American Cancer Society and Armstrong's foundation, second-hand smoke kills 53,000 nonsmoking Americans every year and is a known cause of lung cancer, heart disease, low birth weight and chronic lung ailments.

The bill would ban smoking in all public and indoor workplaces, including restaurants and bars.

Two dozen states have already enacted some smoke-free laws with 14 others considering them, the group says.

"This is an issue of people's rights," to avoid second-hand smoke, Armstrong said. "Nobody's saying you can't smoke a cigarette, but you don't have to do it around me and my kids."

Armstrong could be a critical figure in the bill's chances of passing. Although his foundation supported the measure two years ago, he didn't make the personal pleas that he did with the cancer research bill.

He carries more than an athlete's celebrity into meetings with state lawmakers. His personal story of overcoming testicular cancer and in-depth knowledge of treatments and research make him a formidable advocate, said Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican who sponsored the research bond bill two years ago.

Armstrong's tearful testimony before a Senate committee in 2007 helped persuade some skeptical lawmakers to support the bill just when it seemed to be stalled in the final weeks of the session.

"He is a fighter. If he's committed to a cause, he will see it through. He has energized people who may have wanted to do something, but may not have known how they could have an impact," Nelson said.

Armstrong also has legions of supporters to throw into the fight. Through its Livestrong Army, his foundation can blast hundreds of thousands of e-mail alerts before key votes in an effort to whip up calls and e-mails to lawmakers.

"There was a time or two (in 2007) we unleashed it on a lot of people," Armstrong said. "That's the power of a grass-roots campaign."

A big difference from two years ago is time.

Armstrong was deep into his retirement in 2007. He had the free time to devote a few long days at the Capitol pressing lawmakers for support and testifying late into the night before key committees.

This year, his racing schedule will keep him out of Austin for weeks at a time. His Astana team will be racing in the Giro d'Italia during the final two weeks of the session in May. He won't be around to lend any last-minute support if the smoking ban hits a wall.

Armstrong won't say if he's a Republican or Democrat. He's savvy enough to know that any kind of party politicking can alienate lawmakers and a large section of his grass-roots supporters.

Smoking ban advocates say just having his name behind their cause gives them powerful ammunition for their fight.

"Lance Armstrong lends considerable weight to this issue," said Kirstin Voinis, a spokeswoman for Smoke-Free Texas. "We're more than thrilled to have him on board."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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