LONG BEACH — A man and his wife were sitting over bowls of French onion soup at Jay's Deli one afternoon this week when someone informed them that the city was on the verge of passing an ordinance that would ban smoking from every restaurant in town by 1994.
"Good," the man boomed over his iced tea glass.
"I don't think that's constitutional," his wife said, putting down her soup spoon.
So goes the debate as Long Beach begins to wrestle with what could become one of the toughest no-smoking laws in California. The City Council has given preliminary approval to a law that bans smoking in city buildings and all work sites--including most high-rises, private offices, conference rooms, lunchrooms, hallways and meeting rooms. All restaurants would be forced to more than double their nonsmoking areas until Jan. 1, 1994, when smoking in eating establishments would be outlawed entirely.
About the only place one could smoke in peace anymore would be the local bar and one's living room. Or in the case of Gary Arvin, whose wife objects to his smoking in the house, in the back yard with the dog.
"It's discrimination," Arvin growled, glowering up from a dirty ashtray with four freshly extinguished cigarette butts. He works at the Everett Financial Group on Redondo Avenue, a five-employee office, three of them smokers. The smell of stale cigarettes upon entering their building is enough to knock the Marlboro man off his horse.
"I know, I know," owner David Everett mumbles, a 2 1/2-pack-a-day man who started smoking at 13. "It smells like a pool hall in here. We're smokers and we don't notice it, but when people walk in waving their arms and choking and gasping, we get the idea."
If the proposed ordinance passes, the Everett company's smoking days are finished. But Everett isn't complaining. He knows it's unhealthy. And the law, as much as he hates to admit it, might even prompt him to quit.
"It'll be a pain in the butt," he grumbled. "I'll have to smoke outside. But it's something we can live with."
Office managers around town are trying to figure out how the proposed law would apply to their buildings. Most of them are confused. At least one is delighted.
"We're going to take the insides out of all the ashtrays in the hallways and put plants in them," said Rod Haikin, property manager for the Sumitomo Tower on West Ocean Boulevard.
Officials say 79% of California residents are nonsmokers. So it's not much of a surprise that news of a tough smoking law was greeted with yelps of joy around Long Beach. Some typical responses:
"Thank God. It makes my hair smell."
"If they have the habit so bad that they can't eat a meal without smoke, they better stay home."
"I'm for that. I buried my brother after 40 years of smoking."
But the smoking minority is a feisty one, and a lot of them promised that they would not go down without a fight.
"We have one weapon, and that's the boycott," Richard Palmer of Smokers' Rights, a 2-week-old group, thundered at City Hall last week to nine nonsmoking councilmen. "I am part of a group of six that eats out six nights a week in Long Beach, and we are quitting. We will not buy any taxable goods in the city of Long Beach."
"I just won't go to a restaurant that doesn't let me smoke," said Sydney Nelson, 29, an Alhambra police records technician who was having lunch in Long Beach. She has been smoking for 15 years.
"If I lived here, I would go out of town to eat," she said angrily. "To segregate us is one thing. To ban us, that isn't fair."
From the look on Nelson's face, it might be a long time before she visits another Long Beach restaurant, which is precisely what worries Henry Meyer, owner of Hamburger Henry and chairman of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce restaurant task force.
Some restaurant and hotel owners are rallying to fight the ordinance. Meyer is certain that it will ultimately be repealed if Long Beach wants to market itself as an international city, host to entrepreneurs and tourists from around the world.
"Long Beach isn't Lodi," Meyer said. "We are a port city. We have international visitors who smoke. We spend $80 million on a convention center so people will come and use it. We are supposed to be the hub of the Pacific Rim. This is just another way of scaring people away."
Some restaurant owners believe they've been singled out. Banning smoking in all buildings would be fine, but this ordinance would allow it in bars, they say. And what does that mean for the bowling alleys, they want to know.
"Even subtle changes to a restaurant operation will cause patrons to go elsewhere," Meyer told the council.
That's what they said about the Park Pantry on Broadway when owner Ray Mullio declared his restaurant a nonsmoking haven on Jan. 1.
A couple of people called him a communist and one man screamed at him over the counter. But business is better than ever, up from last year, he says, and these are recessionary times.
"I have had at least 150 people come up to me personally and say thanks," Mullio said.
A lot of smokers still eat at the Park Pantry. They just refrain from smoking. The employees say they don't have to clean the white lamps in what used to be the smoking section nearly as often, and the brand-new flowered booths--10 of which were burned by cigarettes--are now spared from burn marks.
"I come to work with two cigarettes," Park Pantry manager Frances Hunt said proudly, "and I generally go home with one. I smoke less."
It could be three weeks before the ordinance is brought back to the council. The public will have at least two more sessions to address the issue before a final vote is taken. Once signed by the mayor, most sections of the ordinance would take effect in 30 days.
If Round 1 is any indication, future debates will be loud and long.
"The restaurant and hotel owners are regrouping," restaurant owner Meyer said. "I don't know what we are going to do, but we are not going to sit here and be thrown to the lions."