In the biggest assault yet on cigarette smoking in the United States, bars, casinos and nightclubs across California will be forced to ban smoking at the stroke of midnight today as part of a virtual ban on indoor smoking in public places in the nation’s most populous state.
The policy, part of a 1994 state labor law designed to protect the health of employees such as bartenders, waitresses and bellhops against the risks of secondhand smoke, extends the state’s no-smoking policy to bars and clubs from mountain ski resorts to beach-side cafes and every watering hole in between.
Critics of the law and smoking advocates say the law is Draconian and unenforceable and that bars are unlikely to keep patrons from smoking. They also say it will be financially disastrous for bars and nightclubs.
But anti-tobacco forces say the fines included in the law will ensure it will be enforced, and experts say that it signals a new battleground in the war over smoking.
“I think this bar ban going into force is the most important thing happening in tobacco in the country today,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “When this happens in the biggest, most diverse state in the country and the sky doesn’t fall, it will spread across the country.”
California is the first state to so thoroughly restrict smoking.
Since 1995, there has been a ban on smoking in restaurants without bars, manufacturing plants, offices and other enclosed work places. But an exemption was granted to bars and nightclubs in the hope that sophisticated ventilation systems could be developed to reduce the health risks.
But California official officials say that the technology has not been developed and there is no acceptable level of secondhand smoke indoors.
“What you’ve got in California again is Prohibition,” said Thomas Humber, president of the National Smokers Alliance, a pro-smoking group that receives some of its money from the tobacco industry.
Humber said there was already a campaign to get the California Legislature to repeal the ban next year. “Believe me,” he said, “we’ll be as active as any group can be to urge repeal.”
But Brett Granlund, a Republican state assemblyman who opposes the ban, said repealing the law would be very difficult. “I’m afraid it’s going to be the law of the land,” he said.
Granlund, who is trying to quit a two-pack-a-day smoking habit, said the law clearly infringed on the rights of business owners to operate the way they see fit. “Smokers on airplanes and in restaurants have voluntarily complied with smoking restrictions when the law has been reasonable,” Granlund said. “But this law is unreasonable. You’re going to have to hire an army to enforce it.”
There is talk of setting up “smoke-easies” and of civil disobedience campaigns by smokers and bar owners.
Banning bar smoking, opponents say, will not only rob customers of an otherwise lawful pleasure, it will hurt owners because smokers will stop going to bars. Forrest Miller, a bartender at the Studio Lounge in Hollywood, said that about 100 people have already signed a petition he keeps behind the bar seeking a repeal of the law.
‘I’ve been a bartender for 35 years, and they’re trying to destroy my business,” said Miller, 53. “I’m not a smoker and I’m healthy as a horse.”
Some people have even suggested that bars should borrow from the tactics of civil rights and anti-war protesters of the 1960s and hold smoke-ins.
But even if the other bar owners and managers go along with the ban, said Brad McAllen, a 50-year-old bar manager, it would probably be half-hearted compliance. “We’ll post a no-smoking sign,” he said, “but I can’t ask my bartenders to be cigarette police.”
Three years ago, when smoking in restaurants was banned in California, there were plenty of dire predictions. But recent studies show no drop in business at bars that already prohibit smoking, said Colleen Stevens of the State Health Department’s tobacco control section.
Stevens said there are 850,000 people who work in the state’s hospitality industry. “Until now, they were the only workers in California not protected in mass against secondhand smoke,” she said. “This is a worker health issue.”
Enforcing the ban will be up to local city and county governments. In most parts of the state, if a business owner or manager sees a customer smoking they are required to ask the patron to put it out. But, because of concerns for their safety, employees are not required to evict a patron who refuses.
If someone files a complaint with their local health department. for example, the bar owner could be fined $100 fine for the first offense, $200 for the second and up to $7,000 by the fourth.
There are still some exemptions to the law, such as bars with no employees - no bartender, no one to sweep up or to bounce a drunk. But there are not many of those places in California. The state law does not ban smoking at arenas and stadiums outdoors, but some local governments do have outdoor restrictions.
Kimberly Belshe, the head of California’s Health Services Department, said she expects overwhelming compliance with the smoking ban.
“It will probably take some time,” Belshe said, “but it will be as commonplace for smokers to step outside the bar to have a smoke as telling their woes to the bartender.”