YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Smokers Fume Over City's Restaurant Ban


There they were, husband and wife doing down-and-dirty battle over L.A.'s public smoking dilemma--right there in their favorite Ventura Boulevard coffee and cigarette dive.

He smokes like a rattling freight train. She quit 20 years ago. But with this couple, where there's smoke, there's always fire.

Big Don Copelof, a veteran truck driver with a million cigarette-laden miles under his wrinkled blue jeans, lit up a Tareyton 100 in Lancer's restaurant in Tarzana and gave his no-nonsense appraisal of the City Council's decision Tuesday to ban all restaurant smoking.

"I don't like the idea," he said between long, luxurious puffs. "Period."

Across the plastic-topped table, wincing with each breath of smoke wafting her way, Esther Copelof looked her husband drop-dead straight in the eye.

"I think it's terrific," she said.

"Hell, I'm gonna quit anyway," Don said in tentative way clouded with doubt. "I told my doctor that today. But I don't like them telling me I can't smoke in restaurants. They're taking my rights away."

"Well," Esther shot back, "you're taking my life away. Second-hand smoke is just plain dangerous. It's worse for me to sit here next to you than it is for you to smoke that thing."

"I don't believe it."

"Well, you better start."

With a collective exhalation, public smokers across the San Fernando Valley on Tuesday prepared to smash out their butts once and for all, joining the ranks of the non-puffers in restaurants from Lake View Terrace to Woodland Hills.

Those asked about it said they think the new law is a real drag.

For many, the news made Tuesday grayer than exhaled cigarette smoke. First, they lost the right to smoke at work. Then they lost the right to fire up on those blasted long, domestic plane flights. Then they saw half of their favorite restaurants set up as nonsmoking paradises.

And now this.

"I have just as much right to smoke as these other people have to breathe," said Mike Okowita, a production designer in a striped blazer decorated with an alligator button as he entered the Cha Cha Cha restaurant on Ventura Boulevard.

He stopped for a moment and thought of the pleasure of a cigarette and a cup of coffee after a good meal and knew he was going to miss it.

"It's an addictive drug," he said of his favorite pastime. "It's also a pleasant, mild rush."

Over at Mel's Diner, nonsmokers Jim Rose and Dick Cortez sat in the smoking section by the window and fumed about how they detested the habit. They were too tired to move, they said.

They talked of obnoxious puffers who refused to put out their cigarettes short of threats of violence. They talked about eating in poorly ventilated restaurants where they had to walk through the smoking section to get to a non-cloudy atmosphere.

Rose, a stocky 40-year-old salesman, recalled how he had to personally butt out the offensive cigar of one old gent.

"I think it's courageous for anyone to try to stop these people," Cortez said. "It just turns my stomach to see some guy with a cigarette in one hand, a fork in the other. He's eating, enjoying himself. Meanwhile, he's blowing smoke in my face. Sometimes, I can't even eat."

This is one issue that has divided not only husbands and wives like Don and Esther Copelof, but restaurant patrons, owners, bartenders waiters and parking-lot jockeys.

One waitress in Lancers said she was sick and tired of coming home with her clothes reeking of cigarette smoke, often so badly that she had to throw them away.

"Hey," she fumed, "for these smokers, this law would only mean 40 minutes, maybe an hour without a cigarette. But for the people who work in restaurants, it means not having to go eight hours at a time breathing their smoke."

At Le Cafe in Van Nuys, owner Dale Jaffe said he thinks the proposed new law stinks, a throwback that will bring about a new kind of wrong-headed Prohibition.

"People should be able to smoke if they wish" he said. "Hey man, it's a right."

Like other owners, Jaffe worried that the new law would further cut business in a flagging industry. After all, he said, everybody knows that smokers spend more, they eat more, they drink more. They tip better.

"All this talk makes me want to have a cigarette," he said, lighting up.

Over at a nearby table, retired character actor Barry Sullivan sat with his daughter, Jenny. He lit up a More, content with his dinner and his company.

Sullivan, famous for his Irish accent and priest roles in dozens of films, knows that smoking is a bad habit. But it's his habit.

"I've been a smoker since I was 11 days old," he said. "And I'm not going to stop now."

Jenny Sullivan gave her father a long look and sighed:

"He's almost 81. How can I stop him?"

Back at Don and Esther Copelof's table, the battle continued:

"Let people do what they want," Don said. "It's like the abortion thing. It's a woman's body. And this is my body. I feel a kinship with those women now."

Esther looked at her husband and scoffed. While he had smoked for more than 45 years, she thinks it's time he quit once and for all. And if this restaurant ban helps reach that end, well, then she's all for it.

These days, Esther Copelof is speaking up. Like those ladies in the old Virginia Slims commercials, she's come a long way, baby.

"It's a bad habit," she said to her husband. "You're addicted to it. Why don't you just admit it?"

Los Angeles Times Articles