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Bid to Lift Smoking Ban Faces Fight

Politics: Incoming Senate leader John Burton, a tobacco foe, says he will hear complaints but that Assembly-backed measure will be a tough sell.


SACRAMENTO — The incoming leader of the state Senate--an avowed foe of tobacco--said Thursday that he is willing to listen to arguments that California's ban on smoking in bars and card clubs is hurting businesses and angering customers and should be scrapped.

The comments by Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) came one day after the state Assembly narrowly approved lifting the ban less than a month after the prohibition took effect.

Burton, who takes over next week as the upper house leader, said he will allow opponents to air their complaints at Senate committee hearings. But he made it clear that the bill faces a tough fight, one that could last most of the year, and said he personally opposes it.

A similar bill approved by the Assembly last year--before the ban went into effect Jan. 1--remains all but dead in a Senate committee, and the same fate could await the latest Assembly proposal.

Burton, who gave up his three-pack-per-day smoking habit in 1981, has been an opponent of tobacco industry interests. As Senate leader, with control over the Rules Committee that assigns bills to the various committees, he can preside over a bill's demise.

Current Senate Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) did just that last year when he derailed the Assembly bill aimed at allowing smoking in bars and card rooms to continue.

Burton on Thursday refused to declare the latest measure to lift the smoking ban dead on arrival in the Senate. But he said the burden is on bar owners to prove that the prohibition is hurting their trade. Although some tavern owners have complained loudly about a loss of business, others have said the ban has brought in customers.

In determining the bill's fate, Burton said, "economic hardship is something we'd have to look at." He said the Senate would examine tax revenues to the state from bars and card clubs to help learn if business has dropped off.

Whatever happens with the bill, it may take until the legislative session ends to play out. During that time, the measure could be amended, leveraged against other legislation or become the focus of an intense lobbying effort.

Although the bill faces stiff odds against Senate approval, no one was willing to predict its death, especially in an election year when incumbents seeking reelection come under pressure from special interests. No incumbent looks forward to running a race against a challenger whose campaign might attract contributions from powerful groups such as the tobacco industry.

The developments in the Senate followed the lower house's approval late Wednesday of a bill (AB 297) by Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood) to lift the ban.

In the 42-26 vote, Vincent mustered support for the measure on his own, largely bypassing the Democratic Assembly leadership, members of the leadership staff said. Ten Democrats joined with 32 Republicans to approve the bill, which would lift the ban for the period between next January and January 2001.

They said the vote came as a surprise, without the usual private, advance meeting of Assembly Democrats on a controversial topic.

Staffers said the Vincent bill was on the evening's agenda but they believed that he would pass on the opportunity to take it up because there had been no advance discussion.

One Democratic Assembly member said the confusion arose because "we're disorganized. No one's in charge"--a reference to the ongoing transition of the Assembly speakership from Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) to Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). Villaraigosa has been elected to the post, but Bustamante will keep the job until Feb. 26.

The Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity and opposed the Vincent bill said if the leadership "had this smoking thing lined up, we might have had a chance" of voting it down.

Assemblyman Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa)--for years the champion of smokers' rights in the Assembly--called the ban wrong and unenforceable. "It's creating criminals out of people who are merely going to a tavern to have a drink and have a smoke," Granlund said.

Tom Lauria, spokesman for the Tobacco Institute in Washington, said his lobbying group "realized that once the bar owners actually felt the impact of the law they would seek an immediate remedy."

"We are applauding from the sidelines," he said.

Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) said she was hearing the opposite message. Bar owners have told her that "business is picking up because a lot of people have said, 'Thank God, there's no more smoke in these joints.' "

Ann Wright, media director for the state branch of the American Cancer Society, called the Assembly action "disappointing," but added that "we're not surprised" because of the lower house's similar action last year. If the ban were removed, she said, "the tobacco industry is the only ones who would benefit."

Assembly Republican Leader Bill Leonard of San Bernardino said most GOP members voted for the bill because "Republicans stand for freedom of choice."

Many Democrats argue that such a choice should be curtailed in the face of the hazard to health posed by smoking.

Lockyer, in explaining last year why he supported the ban, said it would protect bar employees from the dangers of secondhand smoke. He called the ban a "workers' rights" issue.

Leonard said that bar and tavern customers have the choice of patronizing nonsmoking establishments. To safeguard employees' health, he contended, Cal/OSHA should determine adequate ventilation standards and bars should comply.

A component of Vincent's bill would require the safety agency to set such standards. "Casinos, bars and taverns would have to adhere to that standard," he said.

Rick Rice, a Cal/OSHA spokesman, said that because legislation is lacking, "Cal/OSHA wasn't given a job to do in this case."

Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.

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