Long Beach is about to consider a rare step to ease anti-smoking rules.
At a time when cities nationwide are banning smoking in public places from bars to beaches, the Long Beach City Council today will consider a proposed amendment to its no-smoking ordinance that would exempt cigar lounges and hookah bars.
The city banned smoking in enclosed public places in 1994, but the law was rarely enforced until about a year ago, when anti-smoking advocates began demanding that city health officials take action. In an effort to keep their businesses open -- and avoid fines of up to $500 for each offense -- the owners of the city's 13 cigar lounges banded together to seek an exemption.
Health advocates were upset when City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes Uranga of the 7th District asked the city attorney to draft language to exempt the lounges.
But even Uranga was surprised when the city attorney came back with a draft amendment that would allow smoking in any establishment created for the sole purpose of smoking tobacco: cigar lounges as well as an additional 36 cigar shops and hookah bars.
Now, anguished and angry about the move to weaken the no-smoking ordinance, a coalition of health advocates led by the American Lung Assn. of California has launched a campaign to, as one of its members put it, "protect Long Beach from deadly secondhand smoke."
"If this ordinance passes," said Steven Gallegos, a spokesman for the lung association, "other cities throughout Los Angeles County will look at Long Beach and say, 'If they did it, we can too. Public health be damned.' "
Uranga, who has won an award from the lung association for her efforts to reduce port-related diesel emissions and is a board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, disagreed.
"I believe this amendment will actually stop the proliferation of smoking in public places," she said.
"It will keep the smoking of cigars behind closed doors inside a lounge, and away from kids."
The feuds between anti-tobacco activists and cigar lounges could soon become moot, however, because the California Air Resources Board has recommended a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor public places.
"If that happens, we will comply and tell our people, 'You can't operate a cigar lounge,' " Uranga said.
In the meantime, cigar aficionados continue to gather in the wood-paneled nooks to enjoy a smoke and watch a game on a 50-inch plasma screen, wait out rush-hour traffic or just chat with like-minded peers.
The sedate scene at Bo's Cigar Lounge on the north side of town includes wireless Internet access for customers with laptop computers.
In an interview, owner Bouziane Mouissat expressed dismay about the intensity of the controversy over the business he described as "my hobby, my passion, my livelihood."
"Without the lounge, I'd have to close down the place," he said. "I'm not interested in running a tobacco shop. I'm in it for cigar culture: good company, good cigars and no stress."
As part of an effort to be a good neighbor, Mouissat said, he has donated about $20,000 to various charities over the last year and given about 1,500 cigars to members of the military.
He is particularly proud of a proclamation he received in 2008 from Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe.
The lounge owners recently hired Knabe's son, political consultant Matt Knabe, to handle their public relations.
"We're simply asking that these cigar lounge owners have the right to do their business in a tough economy, and for cigar aficionados to be able to congregate in these safe havens," Matt Knabe said.
A few miles away, in the vibrant retail landscape of Long Beach's Belmont Shore area, Mark Brown, owner of 2nd Street Cigars, didn't argue with any of that.
"Right now, we're dealing with a complaint-driven ordinance," he said. "There is also an ordinance banning sandwich boards on city sidewalks. But take a look down 2nd Street -- there's about 48 at any one time, and nobody says a word."
Nonetheless, the lounge owners' aggressive pursuit of an exemption has sparked a fierce backlash. Opponents have scheduled a 4 p.m. rally today at City Hall to protest what they believe would be a dangerous move.
"This is a giant step backwards for public and employee health," Gallegos said. "This product kills almost half a million people a year."