The Irvine City Council voted Tuesday night, 3 to 2, to increase the percentage of seats that restaurants must reserve for nonsmokers, from 25 spaces to 50.
Mayor Larry Agran and council members Ray Catalano and Ed Dornan voted to double the nonsmoking sections in city restaurants with seating capacities of 40 or more.
Councilwoman Sally Anne Miller warned that the action is a first step toward a smoking ban and opposed the move, as did Councilman Dave Baker. The vote amends the city's public smoking law, first adopted in 1985.
Agran, a nonsmoker, first proposed tightening smoking controls in restaurants last month, adding that he would work toward a total ban within two years.
Both Miller and Baker said Tuesday's action was the first step toward fulfulling Agran's goal, one that they complained would infringe on smokers' rights and place an economic hardship on restaurant owners.
Reading from a three-page prepared statement, Miller said that customer demand will best dictate the allocation of seats between smokers and nonsmokers, adding that nothing will be accomplished by "establishing artificial limits."
She then asked the council majority: "Where will this end? Will you try (to prohibit) alcohol next?"
Baker said the change in the smoking law further erodes the rights of citizens: "If we're not careful, we could be caught sleeping, and not only will our wallets be gone but our rights as well."
A month ago, a coalition of restaurant owners spoke against the proposed amendment, but Tuesday night there was no opposition from the audience.
Urging her colleagues to reconsider, Miller suggested that "we not rush into legislation" to accomplish what we can "through education."
Catalano, who said he would oppose a total ban on smoking, said medical evidence shows that secondary smoke poses a threat to smokers and nonsmokers alike. In defending his vote, he said: "This hardly discriminates against smokers. . . . I am seeking a balance of 50-50 to reduce exposure to this health hazard."