The battle over air quality is to move indoors today, with members of the Los Angeles City Council scheduled to vote on what would be the toughest anti-smoking measure implemented by a major U.S. city: an outright ban on smoking in restaurants.
Since the measure's introduction last summer, the lobbying has been intense. Proponents have cited health studies about the harm of secondhand smoke, while those opposed have invoked the specters of legislative overkill and economic hardship.
Westside Councilman Marvin Braude, a former two-pack-a-day smoker who says he quit 35 years ago, wrote the measure. He conceded Monday that the meeting today could produce "a major fight" and that the outcome could go either way.
Braude estimates that the ban could save 50 to 100 lives each year, based on new federal studies of the dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke.
Restaurateurs and other opponents say the economic consequences would be enormous--3,300 job layoffs and a loss to the city of up to $1.5 million in yearly tax revenue.
Opponents include the tobacco industry, the Los Angeles Business Council and a coalition of about 1,000 Los Angeles restaurants known as RSVP, Restaurants for a Sensible Voluntary Policy (On Smoking). RSVP includes Spago, L'Ermitage, Musso & Frank Grill and other notable restaurants.
"Right now is a terrible time for restaurants," said Rudy Cole, RSVP's executive director, who cited slumping economic conditions that tend to affect eating places before they hit other segments of the market. "This is not a good time to be experimenting with their livelihood."
The measure would require eight approving votes among the 15 council members to qualify for a second reading, after which it would require approval by Mayor Tom Bradley.
If adopted, it would probably take effect near the end of November.
Opponents have found their greatest support in inner-city neighborhoods, where an economic downturn would be hardest felt. Inner-city council members Richard Alatorre, Nate Holden and Gloria Molina are among those who have opposed the ban, while council members Braude, Zev Yaroslavsky and Ruth Galanter, from more affluent Westside districts, have supported it.
Despite the split, Braude expressed optimism based on the city's approval of previous anti-smoking laws he has authored, including measures that banned smoking in grocery stores and elevators and provided for nonsmoking sections in larger restaurants. The 11th District councilman, who represents Pacific Palisades and surrounding areas, predicted that he would win borderline votes by presenting the findings of recent federal Environmental Protection Agency studies concerning secondhand smoke.
Those studies, Braude said, estimate that 50,000 nonsmoking Americans die each year from cigarette smoke. In Los Angeles, one would expect to find about 600 such deaths, he said. Braude estimated that restaurants may account for 50 or 100 of those fatalities because smoke concentrations are often higher there than in other workplaces.
"The most important reason for this ordinance is to protect the health of the 55,000 waiters and waitresses in the restaurants (of Los Angeles)," Braude said. "These people have to serve the (smokers). They have to go into the smoking sections, and there the smoke is concentrated to levels . . . something like 200 times what the federal standards would advocate."
Opponents questioned the EPA findings, pointing to a recent New England Journal of Medicine report that cast doubt on the relationship between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, even in cases where a smoker and nonsmoker had been married for 25 years.
Frank Kieffer, an attorney for RSVP, said the restaurant coalition, which includes a number of no-smoking restaurants, is opposed to the city trying to legislate clean air in private business establishments.
Kieffer noted that Beverly Hills passed a similar citywide smoking ban three years ago and noticed a swift downturn in restaurant business as smokers apparently stayed home or went to other cities to eat. That ordinance, quickly rescinded, was the subject of a study commissioned by RSVP that found an overall 11% drop in restaurant revenues while it was in effect, Kieffer said.
The study, by the accounting firm of Laventhol & Horwath, was made public Monday, he said.
"Smokers will curtail their eating and drinking and time spent in restaurants if the meal is not complete for them--and it's not for smokers if they cannot smoke," Kieffer said. "The restaurants' main concern is the economic impact. This is the last thing the restaurants need."
Although Braude disputed the economic estimates, insisting that people would continue to go out to eat no matter what, others on the council took more moderate approaches. Molina expressed support for the existing ordinance, which provides for no-smoking sections in restaurants with more than 50 seats, saying it works well enough. She expects to vote against the ban, an aide said.
Holden called himself a nonsmoker who would listen with an open mind to Braude's arguments--but he leans against it.
Holden questioned whether the ban is reasonable in a city where the air outdoors is often worse to breathe than anything found in a restaurant. "All you have to do is stick your head out the window today," Holden said in an interview from his car phone. "My God! I'd like to see them ban this."