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No-Smoking Law a Drag for Upscale Bars

Tobacco: Glitzy establishments losing business, particularly among cigar aficionados.

January 16, 1998|RUSS STANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's new law banning smoking in bars is supposed to be the death knell for thousands of the state's mom-and-pop-owned watering holes, or so the doomsayers predict.

But two weeks into the new year, the biggest losers are a host of large companies with household names. They include upscale bars, restaurants and hotels, many of which catered to cigar-smoking customers.

While many of their smaller and lesser-known counterparts look the other way, these companies are complying with the law, and it's starting to hurt.

At Morton's of Chicago in Costa Mesa, receipts in the bar--where customers were encouraged to enjoy a big cigar after devouring a big steak--are running 10% to 15% below last year's level. "We are concerned because it's an area where we generate a lot of profit," said J.C. Clow, general manager.

At the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, the resort's library, which became a smoking room after dark, is again reserved solely for the literary minded. Before the new law took effect, a dozen or more guests would drop by on a given evening for cognac or scotch (about $10 a glass) and a stogie (anywhere from $10 to $30). The library crowd has thinned considerably.

Bar receipts at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach also are lagging, but the club is trying to keep its smoking members happy by erecting a tent for them on a deck outside its lounge.

Each of these establishments is trying to cope with the final phase of the California Smoke-free Workplace Act of 1994, which is designed to protect workers from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Beginning Jan. 1, it banned smoking in bars, pool halls and bingo parlors--the last places that allowed indoor puffing. It requires bar owners to post no-smoking signs, remove all ashtrays and inform patrons they can't smoke.

Of biggest concern to the region's more than 5,200 bars and restaurants that sell alcohol are people like Jim Addis, who smokes about eight cigars a month.

Addis, co-owner of an El Monte metal-finishing company, said the new law "will most definitely" reduce the number of cigars he'll smoke and, subsequently, the number of meals he consumes away from his Newport Beach home.

On Sunday, Addis and a smaller-than-usual crowd gathered at the Balboa club, a private bay-front establishment, to watch the NFC championship game.

In a sun-drenched tent at water's edge, a dozen club members puffed and drank as the Packers trounced the 49ers. Inside the club's lounge--and a lot closer to the bar--more than 20 patrons ate, drank and watched the game.

Many smaller, independently owned bars are exempt from the new law because they employ fewer than five people.

Others, such as Erwin Held, owner of Barney's Beanery in West Hollywood, simply are not living up to the spirit of the law.

"All the law requires us to do is post no-smoking signs, remove ashtrays and ask people not to smoke," Held said. "When they do smoke, we're not throwing them out, and we're not refusing them service."

The new law isn't having a dramatic effect at the more moderate-priced restaurant chains, such as TGI Friday's, El Torito and Claim Jumper.

In the first nine days of the year, Orange County's Tobacco Use Prevention Program hotline received about 350 calls, two-thirds of them seeking more information about the new law. About 100 callers phoned to complain about alleged violations. The county isn't releasing names because "at this stage, they are only allegations," said Marilyn Pritchard, program director.

Los Angeles County's Tobacco Control Program hotline had received 380 calls through last Friday; 104 were complaints.

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