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Breath-Defying Act : Some Long Beach Eateries Openly Defy Smoking Ban, Officials Say

August 04, 1994|JOHN CANALIS and JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite repeated warnings from health workers, at least 10 Long Beach restaurants are openly defying the city's strict no-smoking ordinance by allowing patrons to light up in dining areas and bars, city officials said.

The repeat offenders are ignoring the ban because they believe it infringes on their rights as business owners, said Ronald Arias, manager of the Bureau of Public Health.

Health officials are trying to persuade violators to comply voluntarily with the new law, but restaurants that continue to resist will probably face prosecution, Arias said. He refused to release the names of the violators, citing the possibility of future legal action. No violators have been prosecuted yet, he added.

Health officials have logged 159 telephone complaints against 95 businesses since the no-smoking ordinance took effect April 19. About 80% of the businesses complied after being contacted by officials, although some required additional prodding, said Judy Ross, who is in charge of enforcing the ban for the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Smoking could be observed last week at some trendy Pine Avenue eateries. One restaurant owner, who said he has not been warned, still allows patrons to smoke. "I have not been cited yet, so in the evening I allow smoking," said Moins Rastgar, owner of System M restaurant. "I think (the law) is semi-dictatorial and outrageous, especially in this economy. It is really putting a big burden on businesses."

Rastgar said he and his clientele, which includes international tourists and conventioneers, find the ban insulting and insensitive to cultures where smoking is tolerated.

Rastgar, a nonsmoker, said that unless he receives a warning from the health department, he will continue to allow patrons to smoke in the evening.

Antonio Maretti, general manager of Alegria restaurant and bar on Pine Avenue, conceded that he has allowed regular customers to smoke indoors rather than force them to move to an outdoor patio where smoking is allowed at one-third of the tables.

"We do have a lot of regulars . . . (and) some of them are reluctant to stop smoking," said Maretti, adding that the restaurant has not been warned.

After receiving two complaint calls on a business, the health department sends the violator no-smoking signs and a certified letter, Ross said. If violations continue, health inspectors visit the restaurant and search for evidence that will eventually be forwarded to city prosecutors.

The city is reluctant to seek court action because the fine is only $50 for first offenders, City Prosecutor John A. Vander Lans said. "It is like getting a traffic ticket," he said.

Penalties for successive violations are set by a judge, Vander Lans said. The limit on infractions is usually $100, Vander Lans said, adding that in special cases penalties can reach $250.

"To me this is not the crime of the century," Vander Lans said. "If a restaurant owner were to tell me, 'Gee, I didn't know the law' and promised to comply, I'd be tempted to walk away."

The ordinance, which Long Beach voters passed overwhelmingly in April, prohibits smoking in all eateries, attached bars, coffeehouses, hair salons, bowling alleys, health care facilities and offices. Smoking is legal in a third of the seating area in a free-standing bar that has a ventilation system separate from a restaurant, and a third of the tables on outdoor patios.

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Carl Cowan, co-founder of Citizens for a Healthy Long Beach, a group credited with helping to pass the April ordinance, said the health department has been slow to react to complaints.

"I think the preparation for the strengthened ordinance might have been better," he said. "There's always going to be some resistance, some effort to fight City Hall, and the health department wasn't ready to handle that."

Some Long Beach restaurateurs complained that they have lost customers to border cities that permit smoking, such as Lakewood, Bellflower and Seal Beach.

Cheryl Carter, who owns a Johnny Rebbs' restaurant in Long Beach and another in Bellflower, said smokers have moved to restaurants outside Long Beach.

"We have had a surge of business over in Bellflower," said Carter, who was president of the Long Beach chapter of the California Restaurant Owners Assn.

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