County health officials have sent notices to at least 104 Los Angeles-area bars, including 28 in the San Fernando Valley region, where authorities say patrons or employees ignore the new state law against smoking in drinking establishments.
But county and city authorities acknowledge the letters may be meaningless because enforcement of the new ban is very likely to be spotty, and because the statute itself is riddled with loopholes that could allow smoking to continue in bars.
Under the law--the final provision of a landmark 1994 bill outlawing workplace smoking--authorities can levy fines on bars that intentionally permit smoking and on the smokers themselves.
But as local law enforcement and business owners struggle to translate the statute into real-world use, a number of bars are skirting the ban by meeting only the minimum requirements: Posting a "No Smoking" sign and asking patrons not to smoke--then allowing them to light up anyway.
That was the case Monday night at the Bull's Eye Grill & Tavern in Northridge, where bartender Suzette Chontos served up pitchers of beer and some legal interpretation to the smokers who bellied up to the counter.
"If you're a smoker, you're a smoker. They can still come in here," she said. When one patron sauntered up and drew a cigarette from his pocket, Chontos said, "As you know, it's against the law." When he nodded, she nudged an ashtray in his direction.
"As of now," she said, "it's business as usual."
Enforcement of the ban is left to cities and counties, and officials in certain parts of the state are cracking down on smoking harder than others. Under the law, authorities can issue a citation to a bar owner or patron, with a $100 fine for the first offense. The penalty can increase to $500 for repeated offenses and to $7,000 if Cal/OSHA concludes smoking endangered employees in their workplace.
Los Angeles officials say they are taking a softer approach, issuing two warning letters before a law enforcement agent is sent to inspect a bar.
Ingrid Lamirault, county tobacco control director, and state officials said ultimately they may have to count on the bar owners themselves to enforce the statute.
"We're at a stage with this new law where we don't have concrete enforcement procedures in place," Lamirault said. But she said, "Having cigarette police go out is not the way to make this public health law work."
Some local investigators say the statute is poorly written and nearly impossible to enforce.
"If you post the signs, you can allow all the smoking you want," said Los Angeles Fire Capt. John Kitchens, who runs the legal liaison unit that is to inspect bars for the city. "The owner has no control over the patrons."
Many bar owners agree, and are touting what they believe amounts to a ticket-proof way to obey the law without irritating their smoking clientele.
"It's a matter of complying with the letter of what it said," said South Bay Beverage Assn. President David Berryhill. At Berryhill's Bac Street Lounge in Redondo Beach, patrons are asked to sign a log confirming they have been told it is illegal to smoke, and the management has posted a "No Smoking" sign.
"If you [still] choose to smoke, we're going to get you an ashtray and ask you what you want to drink."
Berryhill is not alone. At Ireland's 32 in Van Nuys, bartender Alan Singleton said he rigidly applied the ban for the first few days after it took effect Jan. 1, but thought twice when business started to go up in smoke. By the end of the first week, the bar decided to comply only with the letter of the law, and its smoking customers returned.
"It was either do it, or go under," Singleton said. Now "we have to inform them it's against the law, then, let 'em smoke."
At the Gold Apple in Northridge, patrons are bringing their own ashtrays. At the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, the management has erected a tent over the patio so patrons can smoke outdoors, but owner Vince Jordan noted if someone smokes inside after being asked not to, the bar is "off the hook."
"They have to use reasonable steps to prevent smoking--that is what the statute requires," said Assistant Los Angeles City Atty. Jolaine Harkless, whose office would have to prosecute offenders.
"There may be some issues raised because this provision [posting signs and ignoring offenders] is coming into play," she added. "Some of these questions may have to be answered down the line."
Bar owners have also vetted the new law for other loopholes. Because the law is part of the labor code and is designed to protect employees from exposure to smoke, some bars have tried to become "owner-operator" businesses with no employees. Another section of the law permits bar employees who fear "physical harm" to let patrons keep smoking, and state authorities worry that bartenders may use that as an excuse to keep from enforcing the ban.