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Restaurant Group Tries to Snuff Smoking Ban : Business: A coalition mounts a drive to let voters decide the issue. The prohibition was supposed to take effect this weekend.

July 25, 1993|JAKE DOHERTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The impending smoking ban in city restaurants is worrying a number of restaurant owners and business leaders in Central Los Angeles, where smokers are heavily represented among the predominantly minority population and foreign tourists.

Daniel Oh and Frank Holoman, restaurant owners in the Central City, are among those leading a petition drive to let voters decide whether there should be a ban. On Friday, the Los Angeles Hospitality Coalition, which includes restaurants and hotels, announced it had gathered about 95,000 signatures in favor of repealing the ban, 36,725 more than needed to place the measure on a future ballot.

The City Council approved the ban June 23, and it would have taken effect Monday had the signatures not been gathered. If the city clerk verifies there are at least 58,275 valid signatures, voters will decide the matter in the November, 1993, or June, 1994, elections.

"This kind of regulation will badly affect the Korean community," predicted Chull Huh, secretary general of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce. "The restaurant business is very bad these days and we worry that people will stay away because of the ban."

Many Korean-Americans are smokers; according to a 1990 study of the Korean-American community by Eui-Young Yu, a Cal State Los Angeles professor, 37% of men and 20% of women smoke.

Recent immigrants smoke most of all, a holdover habit picked up in a country in which more than 60% of the men smoke, according to official South Korean figures.

For first-generation Korean immigrants, "there's more stress, a new culture, a new language, everything is against you," said Daniel Oh, vice president of the Korean Restaurant Assn. of Southern California. "Smoking helps to ease the tension."

Restaurants with a large African-American clientele also worry they will feel the pinch of a smoking ban. In Los Angeles County, the percentage of African-American smokers exceeds that of other ethnic groups, according to a 1990 study by the state Department of Health Services and UC San Diego.

Frank Holoman, owner of the Boulevard Cafe on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, predicted the ban would cost him business. "Some people, when they eat, that's when they want to smoke," Holoman said. "If they can't do it here, they'll just go to Inglewood or Santa Monica or fix dinner at home."

Hiroshi Yamauchi, who owns the Koraku restaurants in Little Tokyo and the Mid-Wilshire area, is concerned because 60% of his ethnically diverse customers smoke. "I've been asking my customers, and they say if they can't smoke here they would go to Culver City or some other place," he said.

Though tobacco industry representatives and some restaurant owners believe the ban will cost eateries significant revenue, others disagree. A few pioneering Central Los Angeles restaurants have already gone smoke-free with some success, and a report by the City Council's chief legislative analyst found evidence to contradict claims of huge business losses in cities with smoking bans.

"It is not possible to project with any degree of certainty exactly what the overall economic consequences of a smoking prohibition will be in Los Angeles," the report said. "However, based on a review of the economic studies . . . it can be argued that any effect on public sector revenues or private business activities will be negligible."

Ed Vasquez, communications director of the Latin Business Assn., said restaurant owners shouldn't worry. "The amount of business lost by excluding smoking would be minimal compared with the overall costs associated with smoking," including medical problems and increasing health insurance costs.

At Siyeon Restaurant at 7th Street and Western Avenue, the owners banned smoking after about 88% of 700 customers surveyed said they would prefer a smoke-free restaurant. "Only 3% to 5% said they wouldn't come here if it was nonsmoking," said Alex Park, who runs the 1,000-seat Koreatown restaurant with his father. "It hasn't hurt any, and a lot of people have come in because they heard it's nonsmoking."

Park's restaurant caters to families; a different clientele might be less willing to quell the desire for cigarettes, he said.

But Park's poll results are consistent with the results of a random poll of 250 Korean-Americans conducted by Stephen Lee of the Korean Health Education, Information and Referral Center in which more than 80% stated a preference for dinner sans cigarettes.

Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles has not regretted the decision to go smoke-free either, said Jai Rich, vice president of advertising and marketing. At the three restaurants in Los Angeles and Hollywood, customers have accepted a no-smoking rule and "it hasn't hurt us," he said.

Orlando Ramirez, manager of El Paseo Inn on Olvera Street, isn't concerned the ban will hurt his business either, even though most of his customers smoke. "I don't think people will stop eating here," he said.

Oh, general manager of the largely smoke-free Ham Hung Restaurant on Ardmore Avenue, said he likes the idea of a smoking ban, but collected petitions against it on behalf of his association.

"I'm all for cutting down on smoking, but don't regulate it," Oh said. "If customers want a smoke-free restaurant, we'll provide it. But the customer is supposed to be king."

Owners of restaurants frequented by heavy-smoking tourists and businessmen say their customers will be left with no choice, and predicted profits will drop.

"In the evening, there's a lot of smoking here," said Kenji Suzuki, manager of the Suehiro Cafe near Parker Center. "If people can't smoke here, they might go somewhere else."

If there is to be a smoking ban, "I wish it would be countywide or statewide," Suzuki said. "Then I'd be all for it."

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