Rancho Palos Verdes has become the first South Bay city to ban smoking in city restaurants, saying recent health studies point to the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke.
The City Council unanimously approved an ordinance this week prohibiting patrons from lighting up in restaurants and requiring bars to designate half their space as non-smoking areas. About 35 businesses in the affluent hillside community will be affected by the ordinance, which takes effect June 18.
Mayor Susan Brooks cited the studies blaming secondhand tobacco smoke for thousands of deaths in the United States each year as a primary reason for the ban.
"With this new compelling information, it's clear your right to smoke ends at my lungs," said Brooks, an ex-smoker who introduced the measure. "We owe it to the citizens to protect them."
Some of the strongest opposition to the measure came from a restaurateur from the neighboring city of Rolling Hills Estates. Jeff Earle, owner of the Red Onion restaurant, said government should not interfere with his business. Earle, a Republican planning to run for a state Assembly seat next year, also said he remains skeptical about the dangers of secondhand smoke despite the recent studies.
"It's the proprietor who takes the risk who runs the business and is the one who should make these decisions," said Earle, who has had non-smoking areas in his bar since 1974. "If the customer doesn't like it, they can complain to the establishment or go elsewhere."
Brooks, however, argued that public health concerns outweigh the rights of business owners.
"To call this ordinance an obstacle to business is selfish and backward," Brooks said. "The agenda here is health and safety in a public restaurant."
Earle also said he feared a domino effect in the three other Palos Verdes Peninsula cities, now that one hillside city has already passed a no-smoking resolution. Even if the dominoes don't fall, however, Earle said the ban will still harm Rancho Palos Verdes restaurant owners since smokers will simply go to neighboring cities that don't have such restrictions.
"The mayor has never run a business," said Earle. "I don't think she appreciates the effect a city council can have on a small merchant."
One area of particular concern for business owners is along Western Avenue, a border between Rancho Palos Verdes and San Pedro. Since San Pedro does not have a smoking ban, Rancho Palos Verdes restaurant owners fear they will lose their smoking customers to establishments across the street.
But Brooks said other cities have imposed similar smoking bans and local restaurants have not suffered. In fact, many restaurants such as the Golden Lotus in Rancho Palos Verdes, which prohibited smoking in its dining area three years ago, say a ban can improve business.
"There's really nothing to be afraid of," said John Bottorff, owner of the Golden Lotus. "(Banning smoking) has been a very successful business move for me."
If, however, local restaurants lose money because of the smoking ban during the next year, Brooks said she would consider modifying or rescinding the ordinance.
Rancho Palos Verdes joins about 200 cities in California that have restricted some or all smoking in public places, employment areas or restaurants.