Tahoe taverns adjust to anti-smoking law
The snow is falling and beginning to stick to Bill Malloy’s hair, as he sits on the front steps of the American Legion Post and smokes a cigarette.
Like Malloy, other cigarette smokers in California have been out in the cold since Jan. 1, when a new state law prohibiting smoking in most bars and taverns went into effect.
In South Lake Tahoe, the ban’s effect has been uneven, with business at some taverns hit hard, while others have attracted new customers who previously shied away from bars because of their smoky interiors.
Bar owners have tried to accommodate their smoking customers by building outdoor shelters, or by providing ashtrays and chairs outdoors.
A Vietnam veteran, Malloy says he doesn’t mind stepping outside for a smoke. On the other hand, he doesn’t think much of the new law.
“It sucks,” is Malloy’s succinct comment.
With many of its veteran members also smokers, the American Legion Post has placed a television in a back room, and opened the fire door to the outdoors, said Tim Manning. Despite the attempt to assist smokers, the Post’s bar business is off significantly, he said.
“If you go back, the government used to give us cigarettes in our rations,” Manning said. “Now, the California government is stepping in and saying even if you served your country you can’t smoke.”
A loss of business at the American Legion Post translates to fewer donations to civic causes. Elsewhere, the smoking ordinance has had an even more direct impact.
“I would say my business is down by 75 percent,” said Kevin Moore, the daytime bartender at Rojo’s since 1975. “My customers are set in their ways. Some come in for five minutes, say hello and then go home. I’ve even lost non-smoking customers who won’t come by because no one’s here. A bar is a social scene.”
Moore and others in the Tahoe tavern community say the smoking ban might be exacting a greater toll here than elsewhere in California, because of the proximity of smoking bars a mile or two away across the state line.
Yet, even though some bars have suffered because of the law, others report their business has remained brisk or even improved.
“I was a little skeptical to say the least, but the result has been more positive than I expected,” said Tom Miller, co-owner of Steamer’s Bar and Grill.
Steamer’s has sheltered its covered porch in front, and made a temporary enclosure outdoors. The accommodations have kept the bar’s smoking customers returning, while the cleaner air indoors has attracted a new clientele, Miller said.
“We’re getting people now who didn’t want to come in because of the smoky atmosphere,” Miller said. “Everybody’s happy, including me, because I don’t have to breathe all the smoke anymore.”
Other taverns reported a negligible impact on business from the new ban. Steve Ellis, who opened a downstairs bar six months ago at Ellis Island, said the smokeless rules have had little impact. But he’s still not happy about the law.
“It’s still a terrible law. We’re signing every petition left and right we can,” Ellis said. “Many customers don’t realize who the law is for. It’s not for the customers; it’s a Cal OSHA law protecting employees. But the bartenders think it’s a bad law because it has affected their pocketbook.”
At Hoss Hogg’s, customers can take advantage of the former woodshed in back that the bar has converted to a smoking shelter, said Todd Stahl, the bar manager.
“But most people choose to go out front and smoke in front,” Stahl said.
That comes as no surprise to Evan Williams, a partner at the Cantina restaurant and bar, which has prohibited cigarette smoking for the past three years.
“Most smokers have realized they are pariahs now, and that they can’t force their smoke on people,” Williams said. The Cantina is one of a handful of South Shore restaurants that banned indoor smoking long before the California law went into effect. Other’s include The Beacon and Dory’s Oar.
Yet, Williams said he would prefer market-driven smoking rules, so smokers would still have a place to go and indulge in both of their favorite vices.
“I kind of feel that smokers need a place to go. It’s a difficult situation. Alcohol and nicotine can be very co-dependent drugs,” Williams said. “But I can’t think of two more incompatible activities than eating and smoking.”
At the American Legion Post on a recent afternoon, the members who had dropped by were uniformly opposed to the ban.
“I’ve been smoking since I was 14. I’m 68 now, and I’m not going to stop,” said Russ Dippel, a veteran of the Korean conflict. “Eighty percent of our members smoke; this whole thing is a pain in the butt.”
El Dorado County health officials say compliance has been fairly good during the first month of the smoking ban, even though a small number of taverns in the county have flouted the law and made no effort to comply.
“We do not want business owners to be hurt. We don’t want anybody to go out of business,” said Margaret Alvarez, deputy director of the county’s health promotion program. “When a smoking ban went into effect at restaurants two years ago, we received a lot of calls from restaurant owners concerned about a loss of business, but it didn’t happen. We’re hoping that, with this, the same thing will happen.”
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