A little more than a year ago, as restaurant managers up and down the state removed ashtrays from their dining tables to comply with the antismoking law, many worried whether those seats would ever be filled again.
Today these same managers may be wondering why they fretted at all. "The fears were unfounded," said Stan Kyker, executive vice president of the California Restaurant Assn., noting that the state law hasn't adversely affected most restaurants.
In fact, Kyker says, some restaurants have benefited from the year-old law, which bans smoking from most indoor workplaces except bars, gaming clubs and a few other establishments.
At Antonello's in Costa Mesa, manager Thaddeus Foret says that in the last year more nonsmokers have come in to dine. And by setting up more tables in the patio, the restaurant has kept most of its smoking clients happy.
"It's probably been a plus for us," Foret said.
The same can't be said for places that have long been smokers' havens, such as bowling alleys and dim-lit cafes in Little Saigon.
David Spiegel, chief operating officer at Los Angeles-based Active West Inc., which operates 18 bowling centers in the state, says he has seen a significant drop in smoking customers in the last year. And there's been no uptick in nonsmoking customers, he said.
"Bowling is hurting, it's a dangerous situation," he said.
But for most businesses, the antismoking measure has created little stir, having found quiet acceptance among employers, employees and customers alike.
Indeed, for all of last year health department officials received just 395 complaints of suspected noncompliance in Los Angeles County and 156 complaints in Orange County. Only a handful of employers statewide--including a cafe in Westminster--have been fined the initial $100 penalty for flouting the law. (Repeat violators can be fined up to $500.)
Why so few complaints? Health analysts say it's largely because many cities in California, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and several in Orange County, had their own antismoking ordinances before the statewide ban took effect.
"The law is not a problem because the social norm is already established," said Anne Klink of California Smokefree Cities, a private group that is tracking the effects of the law. Nearly 85% of Californians do not smoke, Klink added, so the ban "wasn't exactly a shock wave."
Nonetheless, the extent of noncompliance is probably much greater than the complaint numbers reflect. In some cases, people aren't likely to know where to complain (generally county health departments). Also, employees as well as customers might be reluctant to buck the status quo in places where smoking has long been the norm.
In Downey, for example, a 27-year-old worker in a small trading company said three of the senior executives smoked in the 10-employee office. The worker said he got sick from the constant smoke, but he put up with it anyway until he quit recently.
Asked why he never complained to the health department, the worker said: "I wasn't in the position to say anything. . . . I wouldn't have been seen as a team player."
Few employers have resisted the smoking ban outright, but others have stretched the law's exceptions to the limit. Some restaurants, for example, have turned their bar sections into dining areas.
(For now, the state law allows smoking in "bar areas" inside restaurants, but only if those areas are used mainly for the sale of alcohol. Next January, bars and gaming halls such as casinos and bingo halls also must be smoke-free.)
The state law is considered one of the toughest in the nation, but most wouldn't know it if they entered Pinnacle Peak in Garden Grove. Long before the law took effect, the popular steakhouse had a smoking dining area in its bar section.
And it still does. People can puff away in the bar area, which has 10 of the restaurant's 47 tables. On a recent Sunday evening, all of those tables in the bar area were occupied. Some customers were sipping drinks with their meals, but most were simply eating dinner.
Paul Christensen, night manager, acknowledged that food business is big in the bar area, probably bigger than drinks. But he says few customers have complained about smoke traveling to another dining hall in the restaurant.
Robert Peterson, a senior official with Riverside County's Department of Health, says other restaurants have tried to get around the law by using the exception allowing smoking in private lounges.
"Some are real creative," Peterson said, noting that one restaurant in his county tried to create a smoking club in which patrons paid $1 for membership. The restaurant owner was fined $100 and eventually had to pay another $170 for court costs when he challenged the citation in Municipal Court.