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Petition Drive Puts Smoking Ban in Doubt : Ordinance: Council is on the spot to repeal or weaken its tough new law or put the issue to a public vote. Tobacco interests vow to continue fighting measure.

September 23, 1993|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — A smokers' rights group funded entirely by tobacco interests has gathered enough signatures to force the City Council to weaken its embattled anti-smoking ordinance or put the issue before Long Beach voters.

City Clerk Shelba Powell told the City Council on Tuesday that a random sample of the petitions submitted by the Long Beach Business & Convention Coalition indicated the group had collected enough valid signatures from local voters to qualify the referendum. The group gathered 31,850 signatures, and 955 of them were checked in the sample.

The group spent $65,138 on petition gatherers and related expenses, according to a campaign disclosure statement submitted earlier this week. The statement showed that the group's $85,000 war chest came entirely from tobacco interests.

The Oregon Executive Committee of Salem, Ore., contributed $65,000, while $20,000 came from the Washington-based Tobacco Institute, the statement said.

The Oregon Executive Committee, which was founded to oppose anti-smoking measures in Oregon, is funded by Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard Tobacco Co. and American Tobacco Co., said spokesman Mark Nelson. The Tobacco Institute also is a trade organization.

"The industry is very committed to defeating" the Long Beach ordinance, Nelson said in a telephone interview. He said he did not know how much the group would be willing to spend to fight the measure.

Although the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce and some local restaurateurs oppose the anti-smoking ordinance, local businesses contributed no money to the coalition, the statement indicated.

That disclosure angered Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, who sponsored the anti-smoking ordinance. "This was not a referendum sponsored by Long Beach people," Braude said. "We have outsiders coming in to tell us how to run the city."

The council approved the anti-smoking ordinance in late July. Councilman Warren Harwood, who supports smoking restrictions, cast the only vote against the measure because of a technicality.

The ordinance bans lighting up in restaurants and requires that two-thirds of seating in bars and outdoor eating areas be set aside for nonsmokers. It also makes cafeterias, bowling alleys, bingo parlors, hair salons, hotel lobbies and other public places smoke-free zones.

But the referendum petition drive blocked the measure from taking effect Aug. 28.

The council now has several options, which include repealing or weakening the measure, or placing it before voters on the April 12 municipal ballot.

The council also could pass a weaker measure and seek voter approval of the original ordinance. If it were to win approval, the tougher ordinance would prevail.

But the council, composed entirely of nonsmokers, voted 7-2 on Tuesday to put off the matter for a week. "The council needs more time to sift it out," Braude said.

Councilmen Harwood and Douglas S. Drummond voted against delay, saying it was time the council dealt with the issue. The two did not agree on what action the council should take, however. Harwood wants to put the measure on the ballot, but Drummond would prefer to modify the ordinance because a well-funded campaign by tobacco interests might defeat the issue.

Some of the council members suggested that maybe a full count of the signatures, as opposed to the sampling, would indicate the petition drive had fallen short. But the council stopped short of ordering a full count after Powell, the city clerk, told them the random sampling was an accurate indicator. The full count would cost at least $17,000, she said.

Other council members also said they feared doing battle with the tobacco industry at the ballot box. Perhaps a compromise measure would be better.

"By the time that campaign is over, the people of Long Beach will be thinking they're voting to give up their first-born child," said Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg.

However, some seemed less willing to compromise.

"I think it's real clear that we must go forward," said Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal. "I certainly do not want to be one to modify anything out of fear."

The council has backed down before. Two years ago, before Lowenthal and Doris Topsy-Elvord took office, the council passed an ordinance that would have outlawed smoking in restaurants starting Jan. 1, 1994.

But the law never took effect. An organization backed by the tobacco industry collected 30,000 signatures opposing the smoking prohibition.

Facing a costly referendum, the City Council decided to replace the ordinance with the weaker version--the one that is still in effect. It bans puffing in municipal buildings and in most private offices but allows smoking in designated areas in restaurants and other public places.

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