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Cities Moving Cautiously on Smoking Bans : Health: West Hollywood council gives ordinance a preliminary OK. But lawmakers want to see what Santa Monica and Beverly Hills do before instituting law.


WESTSIDE — Slip into one of the pillowy vinyl booths at Argos Coffee Shop and slip back in time.

Everyone seems to be a regular. The waitresses have first names without tags, and they already know how much hot sauce a customer likes on his steak. The old-timers greet each other as they belly up to the counter for the T-bone special and a slab of cherry pie. It's a cheap-eats Cheers, a throwback place where everybody knows your name.

And almost everybody smokes like a chimney.

"It's the coffee," said co-owner Ted Sellis, savoring a cup of joe and a Benson & Hedges. "Our thing is coffee. When they drink coffee, they like a cigarette."

Indeed they do. About two-thirds of the customers at Argos smoke, Sellis figures. By tradition, everyone knows to smoke on the east side of the room, though it's not marked as a smoking section.

This cozy--if hazy--world received a jerk toward the nonsmoking '90s this week when the West Hollywood City Council gave preliminary approval to a complete smoking ban in the city's 100 or so restaurants.

The move is more bad news for smokers seeking a haven from a similar ban that will go into effect in Los Angeles later this month unless restaurateurs there can derail it through a petition drive that would put the matter before voters.

The West Hollywood measure requires restaurants to post no-smoking signs, adding to an already strict city law on smoking in other public places. The law exempts bars, private clubs, closed offices and hotel rooms. Lighting up in a restaurant could be punished by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. A violation of the posting requirement would carry a $100 fine for the first offense.

The 4-0 vote--Mayor Sal Guarriello abstained--came after local restaurant owners complained that a ban would hurt business and infringe on their right to allow smoking if they want. Opponents urged the city to wait and see what happens to two competing state bills, which are currently in legislative committee, before taking any local action. One would ban smoking in restaurants statewide; the other would prevent cities from enacting new bans.

"If you want to clean the air up, you ought to do something about the smog," growled Gene Tolegian, who owns Tango Grill.

The West Hollywood ordinance is part of a regional effort to snuff out smoking in Westside restaurants. In response to worries that a ban would shoo smoking diners to neighboring cities, the council will hold off final approval until Beverly Hills and Santa Monica appear poised to impose their own bans.

Santa Monica is writing its own smoking law, but Beverly Hills remains a question mark. The Beverly Hills City Council last week rejected a suggestion to join the no-smoking push, opting instead to await the fates of the two statewide bills.

Beverly Hills may be especially sensitive to the smoking issue. The city revoked a nationally publicized smoking ban in 1987 after restaurant owners said it was hurting business--a claim anti-smoking activists still dispute.

Councilman Paul Koretz, who sponsored the West Hollywood measure, said a push by cities to enact smoking bans may give the needed boost to a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood) that would bar smoking in restaurants throughout California. Advocates say a statewide ban would quell worries among restaurateurs that a patchwork of local laws would create unfair competition.

"This is not a case of West Hollywood going out on a limb alone. But it's a case of West Hollywood trying to provide some leadership," said Koretz, whose father, once a smoker, worked as a waiter for more than 30 years before he died of a heart ailment attributed to smoking. Koretz said a statewide restaurant smoking ban could save thousands of lives by reducing workers' exposure to toxic secondhand smoke.

He had no trouble getting backing from council colleagues, none of whom are smokers, although Guarriello sat out the vote after questioning whether the law would violate constitutional freedoms. A group of out-of-town anti-smoking activists cheered the vote, but one opponent of the law yelled "Fascists!" as it was passed.

The Los Angeles City Council approved a smoking ban last month after a years-long battle between Councilman Marvin Braude, an ardent smoking foe, and the tobacco and restaurant industries. Last Friday, a newly formed group of city restaurant and hotel owners, saying the ban will chase away business, launched a petition drive aimed at putting the issue to a vote. The group hopes to gather the required 58,275 signatures by July 24, the deadline for stalling the measure.

All this no-smoking action doesn't sit well with the folks at Argos, a 30-year-old establishment marked by a giant rooster figure next to Santa Monica Boulevard.

Cabdriver Joe Zabala retreats to Argos three or four times a day between runs.

Zabala, who reads the newspaper sports section at the counter with a cup of tea and a Marlboro, says he may stop coming if the citywide law takes effect, just as he and his friends abandoned their old hangout--a Carl's Jr. in Mid-Wilshire--when it went smoke-free a couple of years back.

"I'd eat at home. When I go to a restaurant, I smoke," Zabala said. "It's enjoyable after you eat."

Sellis, the restaurant's co-owner, fears that a smoking ban will make his place as gone as the Studebaker. "Somebody who smokes is just going to say, 'I'll stay home tonight and smoke my head off,' " he said. "It's going to kill the business."

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