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California and the West

Bars Still Exhibit Plenty of Puffing--and Huffing

January 30, 1998|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Rudy's Pub in Palo Alto, where Christmas lights shine year-round, to The Saloon, an old-time bikers' bar in Palm Springs, to Ronnie's Dew Drop Inn, a neighborhood tavern in Chula Vista, bar owners or their customers around California are flouting the state's ban on smoking and daring authorities to come in and kick their ashes.

Even as many bar owners in California are successfully--albeit begrudgingly--asking their customers to abide by the month-old law, there are enough rebels within the ranks to suggest that enforcement of the ban is hit-or-miss at best, chaotic at worse. Adding to the confusion this week was the passage late Wednesday night of an Assembly measure to repeal the ban next January--subject to the state Senate's unlikely concurrence.

"We're smokin'," boasted bartender Meridith Brown at Rudy's, not far from Stanford University. "I don't want to sound too cocky, but we believe we should be allowed to have smoking in our bars."

Never mind the $100 citation the bar already has been hit with. "Our customers want to smoke," she declared.

Tom Adamo, who owns The Saloon, posted the requisite no-smoking signs inside his place--along with a huge banner reading "Freedom of Choice Smokers Club."

"I'm willing to pay a fine," said Adamo, himself a nonsmoker. "What are the authorities going to do? If they want, I'll just give them my license . . . and become a private club."

In Chula Vista, a bartender--refusing to give her last name--said smokers have continued to light up inside Ronnie's. "We don't have ashtrays sitting out," she said. "We do a lot of floor sweeping."

On the other hand, the ban has been rigorously enforced at bars including Scoby's in Chatsworth.

"We have not been smoking," said General Manager Valerie Farlow-Johnson. "We have lots of smokers here, but the bottom line is that they're also adults, and they understand that a law is a law is a law. They're not totally thrilled about it, but the place smells a lot better now."

Farlow-Johnson said she and her staff politely ask smokers to take their cigarettes outside to the patio, where tables and ashtrays have been provided. If they don't comply, "I just take the cigarettes," she said.

Indeed, the question of whether smoking occurs in bars--despite the threat of fines that can reach into the hundreds of dollars--seems to depend on the resolve of bartenders to play the heavy.

At Bar 99, a small beer-and-wine bar in Los Molinas, 100 miles north of Sacramento, owner Ken Northup said he isn't about to stand between some big farmer and his Winston.

"I tell 'em, 'No smoking,' and they just laugh at me," Northup said. "Some big guys come in here, and who am I to tell them they can't smoke? I'm not the law. I just put the signs up."

Howard Queen, who owns the San Andres Fault in Santa Barbara, concurs. He already has received a warning from local authorities after one customer complained about another's smoke. He said he tries to monitor the problem, but only to a point.

"People don't come into a bar for their health," he said. "If people are going to smoke, it's not in my job title to police them. I'll tell them they can't smoke, but if they say bull . . . I say fine."

The job of enforcing the smoking ban rests with cities and counties, once complaints are received. Some complaints are passed on to sheriff's deputies or police officers, others to health or building code inspectors.

In Los Angeles County, about 200 complaints have so far been filed, out of about 3,200 establishments that have bars, officials say. But so far, none of the complaints have led to actual citations, only warnings.

In Clovis, Police Sgt. Robert Keyes oversees the enforcement and says he expects to issue fines within days to bars that have been warned but still refuse to comply.

At one bar where he gave an initial warning, "they put a jar up on the bar to ask for donations to pay the fine." Nobody put out their cigarettes. "They viewed it as their constitutional right to smoke. I never envisioned myself being the smoking police, but I am."

Even the bureaucracy seems confused by the young law. When a staff person in the Orange County health department was asked who enforces the law, the call was referred to the Sheriff's Department; a call to the Sheriff's Department was referred back to the health department.

Some bar patrons reacted prematurely Thursday to news of the Assembly's vote on the smoking ban. The fact that the bill also needs approval from the state Senate--where it faces an uphill battle--seemed lost on puffing patrons perched on stools at Sans Souci in downtown Ventura.

"We were smoking outside before today, but now the Assembly has passed the bill so starting today, it's OK," said customer Carol Duarte.

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