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Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

For the 2 officers who prowl L.A. bars for smoking outlaws, it's a game of gotcha--unless the offender snuffs out the evidence first.

July 11, 2001|LOUISE ROUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

April Lanci, 27, took another drag on a Marlboro Red as she chatted with her friends in a Western-style Van Nuys bar called the Chimney Sweeper. As she exhaled, she was blissfully unaware of the two uniformed men who entered through the leather padded swinging doors and made their way over to her seat in the busy bar.

The men introduced themselves to Lanci. She assumed they were cops looking for underage drinkers. It was only after a moment that she realized they were looking for her: April Lanci, smoking outlaw. One $81 ticket later, the Marlboro G-men were back on Los Angeles' streets, on the hunt.

Despite California's 1995 smoking ban, which makes it illegal to smoke in most indoor workplaces, some renegades refuse to abandon that most illicit of L.A. pleasures: smoking. Stubbornly, they defy the law--at parties, clubs and bars. For the city's only two smoking inspectors, it's a never-ending chase in a place with thousands of bars, cafes and clubs.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Los Angeles Fire Department Inspector Gabriel Orona, 40. "The minute you leave, everybody lights up again."

Orona and his partner Clinton Pruiet, 38, who've worked together for the last six months, receive about 30 complaints a week on their hotline, and spend about two nights each week ferreting out those bars and night spots where people insist on smoking. Their job requires them to be part night owl, part detective. It also requires them to be immune to the slings that come naturally with the turf--the guffaws, the snickers, the snide remarks, the eye rolls.

"We will put up with a lot of verbal abuse, but physical, we won't," Orona said. "I don't take it personal, but [sometimes] I get a little nervous."

On a typical night, the two smoking sleuths meet at their small, fluorescent-lit City Hall office downtown and ready themselves for their sting operations. Checking the complaint log, Pruiet and Orona will prepare for the hunt by poring over the Thomas Guide, deciding where to strike. They usually work until 10 or 11 p.m.; sometimes they stay out past midnight.

Pruiet spent 12 years as a firefighter, and Orona spent 15 before they were promoted to inspectors. It may not be their career goal but as Orona says, "I'll go where they send me and I'll do my best."

On a recent Tuesday, the two (nonsmokers both) decided to hit Koreatown, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Before long, they were cruising down Western Avenue in their white Fire Department sedan looking for telltale signs of outlaws. A high-traffic bar with an absence of smokers outside, for instance. It's a sure thing, Orona said, that there are smokers inside.

Things don't always go as planned. Sometimes, owners openly toy with the inspectors. Sometimes, the inspectors are the ones who get busted.

Shortly before 8 p.m., Pruiet parked around the corner from a trendy minimalist bar in Koreatown, a recurring source of complaints. But there was little hiding the conspicuous sedan with its eye-catching city insignia on the door. Or, indeed, the black-and-white uniforms and the purposeful stride of the inspectors. To cite smokers, inspectors need to catch them in the act--often a difficult proposition.

By the time Pruiet and Orona got inside the half-filled bar, the valet had alerted the lawbreakers inside. The air was still blue-gray with smoke but there was nary a lit cigarette in sight. Certainly, no one here was breaking the law.

Instead, all cigarettes had been stubbed out; the flat ashtrays hidden under dinner plates. That's just one of the many tricks smokers use to outwit the Marlboro Men. Some use metal mint boxes for ashtrays. When smokers see the inspectors coming, they stub out their smokes in the box, "cap it, and put it in their pocket," Orona said.

The favorite ruse, by far, involves wet napkins. Smokers soak paper napkins with water, and use them as ashtrays. Messy, yes, but it makes hiding the evidence so easy.

Some smokers openly challenge the inspectors by getting up and walking outside, lit cigarette in hand. These guys don't give chase: "We're not

Catching repeat offenders poses a special challenge.

At a beach-themed tequila bar in Koreatown, the inspectors sneak around a corner outside, ducking under the front windows. "She knows us," Pruiet whispers. "We've been here several times before."

Clearly.

As the manager catches sight of the inspectors, she swoops over tables, snatching butt-filled napkins away from startled patrons.

"Is everything OK?" she asks innocently, clenching the evidence behind her back as Orono and Pruiet walk briskly through the room where, oddly, a cloud lingers under the ceiling.

"Yeah," Orona says, knowing he's been thwarted. "But we'll be back."

Bar owners sometimes conspire with one another against the inspectors. "It's an agreement. 'If they show up in my bar, I'll call you' and vice versa," Orona says.

But owners also conspire against each other, calling the hotline to snitch out competing bars that tolerate smoking.

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