Butts snuffed out with the new year
The new year is starting out to be a big drag for California smokers.
New Year’s Eve offered the last chance to puff away in most bars, before midnight brought into effect the final step in the state’s effort to ban smoking in most enclosed public places.
While smoking foes eagerly awaited the new law, others scoffed at it.
“This could potentially kill people’s businesses. As far as the risk is concerned, employees willingly put themselves in that situation,” said Pete Joseph, owner of McP’s Irish Pub and Grill. “We already have to water our lawns and burn our stoves on certain days – what’s next?”
California banned smoking in most indoor workplaces in 1995, including the non-bar areas of restaurants. Bars and casinos were temporarily exempt. The only exempt businesses now are casinos and bars on Indian reservations and owner-operated businesses with no employees.
The ban isn’t meant to criminalize smoking, state officials say, but is aimed at giving employees a safer workplace – free of secondhand smoke, which has been linked to lung cancer, respiratory problems and other illnesses.
“I got out of bartending because the smoke bothered me so much,” said Iliad Rodriguez of San Jose, Calif. “Sometimes I’d be pouring drinks and someone would blow smoke right in my face.”
Rodriguez, in Tahoe for the weekend, now says the new law may lure him back behind the bar.
The American Lung Association estimates that a worker’s exposure to secondhand smoke in one eight-hour shift can be the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes. Nicotine was found to linger in the air for more than 2 weeks.
“I’m thrilled about the new law,” said Ellis Island “downstairs” bartender Michelle Price. “The smoke really bothers me.”
But Price’s co-worker Carrie Dalessandro disagrees.
“It should be the bar owner’s choice,” she said. “I’m a nonsmoker, but I also want to make money. It should be up to the bar owner and the employees who work there.”
Joseph, whose bar is located less than a block from Nevada, says the financial impact is what worries him most.
“It’s a little unfair – we’re here on the state line. There should be some sort of exemption,” he said. “I’m concerned about our international visitors. Virgin Holidays brings about 11,000 European visitors here every year. They may not come back to Tahoe once the word gets out. They may go to a smoker-friendly state – the impact on our economy is huge.”
Putting state line businesses aside, a University of California study published in November in the American Public Health Association’s journal concluded that smoking bans in five California cities and two counties did not hurt bar or restaurant sales.
In another study, 60 percent of bar patrons stated they prefer smoke-free bars, while 17 percent said it made no difference.
Farther from the state line, several South Lake Tahoe bars implemented nonsmoking rules long before it became law.
“There was some concern at first with Europeans,” said Charlie Donaldson, bar manager at The New Dory’s Oar English Tudor Pub and Restaurant. “But we’ve had very few complaints. Believe it or not they’ll still go outside when it’s 20 degrees. It’s very communal – a great way for people to meet.”
“Not smoking has become a part of our culture, like on airplanes,” said Mike Weber, Managing Director of Camp Richardson Resort. “(The new law) won’t have much of an impact – it won’t keep smokers at home. Bars offer a social component that you can’t replace. Smoking is just an oral fixation – maybe this will bring back all that interesting conversation we’ve been missing.”
“There are so many places I haven’t gone to because of smoke,” said South Lake Tahoe resident Tara O’Hara, who gets an allergic reaction. “It’s like I get an instant sinus infection. To me, there’s nothing more important than clean air.”
One thing is certain, California business owners will have to get more creative when it comes to pleasing their smoking customers.
For example, managers at Turtles Sports Bar and Dance Emporium – located inside Embassy Suites Resort Lake Tahoe – have now purchased outdoor heaters to keep their smoking guests warm on the patio.
But that might not be enough for Tahoe tourists like Paula Parizek, who was in town for New Year’s from Omaha, Nebraska. “Personally, I wouldn’t go to a bar that didn’t have smoking – I didn’t know about this new law,” she said. “I would rethink planning a California vacation in the future.”
Many, however, argue that California may simply represent the tip of a future iceberg.
The state has been airing radio and TV ads, sending fliers and holding workshops for the more than 35,000 bars, gambling parlors and bar-restaurants affected by the change.
Owners breaking the law could be fined up to $100 for a first offense and up to $7,000 per violation for a series of offenses. Smokers could also be fined.
Compliance and enforcement aren’t expected to be a problem, state and local officials say.
”If experience with other workplaces is any indication, there will be very high compliance,” said Ingrid Lamirault of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. ”People in California are primed for this kind of legislation. This is just the next step.”
Enforcement will be left to municipalities, which will likely give authority to local health departments.
“I think the benefits outweigh the numbers of people who are going to bitch,” said smoker Brandon Warner of South Lake Tahoe. “I don’t think other people should have to subject themselves to my habit. While all of us smoke with filters, it’s like those bartenders are smoking without one.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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