SANTA MONICA — Yielding to the pleas of local restaurateurs, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday passed a law that bans smoking in restaurant dining areas but permits it in restaurant bars.
The law, modeled on the Los Angeles ordinance that took effect in August, makes no distinction between bars that are physically separate from dining areas and those that abut them. The only restriction for bars is that their food service must be incidental to alcohol consumption for them to qualify for the smoking exemption. Smokers will also have free rein to light up on outdoor dining patios.
An all-out push by council members Kelly Olsen and Ken Genser to extend the smoking ban to bars and outdoor dining patios failed badly, as the council voted 5 to 2 for a more limited law to protect local restaurants in a precarious economy.
A rare application of a council policy limited each council member to 10 minutes of debate on the smoking ban. The restriction appeared aimed at thwarting Olsen and Genser from dwelling at length on health statistics and arguments that there are no safe levels of secondhand smoke.
"This is a city that has always put the environmental health of our residents ahead of economic concerns," Genser said.
Noting that annual deaths attributable to secondhand smoke far surpass deaths from car accidents and AIDS, Olsen said it was within the council's power to save lives.
"This is in our hands," Olsen said. "We're God. . . . All we have to do is say 'yes' to a small ordinance."
Mayor Judy Abdo later replied, "I was not elected to be God. Maybe some of us feel we don't have that kind of power."
Abdo argued that the city is caught in a transition period, as smoking in public is being phased out altogether. The city is backing a state bill authored by Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D-Brentwood) that would ban smoking in all workplaces, including restaurants and bars. Similar federal legislation, sponsored by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), is also in the pipeline.
"All of us can look forward in a year or so to (having) a smoke-free city," Abdo said.
As a contingency plan, Councilman Paul Rosenstein, who made the prevailing motion, asked that the city staff return next September with a proposal for an all-out smoking ban in workplaces, restaurants and bars, including retail establishments.
Responding to criticism that the council was catering to the restaurants by delaying, Rosenstein said, "They are not at all happy campers. This is not their ordinance by any means."
But Genser described the delay as an effort to quietly shelve the issue. He predicted that next September, in an election year, council members were not likely to vote against restaurant owners who contribute to their campaign coffers.
"This is a way to punt," Genser said. "(To) tell the public 'we'll take care of you in awhile.' " But it ain't going to happen."
Councilmen Robert T. Holbrook and Tony Vazquez, both of whom are up for reelection next year, took exception to Genser's remarks. "I don't intend to duck the issue," Holbrook said.
After the meeting, Olsen stepped up the attack, saying the council majority had sided with the restaurateurs as a way to pay off campaign debts.
"That's an outrageous suggestion," Rosenstein said. "This (law) is going to have a sweeping, immediate impact. Most of us in Santa Monica are going to be smoke-free."