Column

Laguna's new public smoking ban leaves a stink

Enlightened human beings admit their mistakes. It’s how we learn.

When governments admit their mistakes, however, it’s usually because of a lawsuit. And even then, nine times out of 10 they don’t admit fault.

The Laguna Beach City Council has made a mistake, but let’s see how long it takes to admit it.

On May 23, the council formally banned all public smoking with just a couple of narrow exceptions. A month later, on June 23, the enforcement started.

“The police were here at 11:59 on Thursday night telling people they can’t smoke outside the bar,” said Chip Harrell, owner of the Sandpiper Lounge.

The police log confirms Harrell’s statement. Laguna Beach police were on a “bar check” at the Sandpiper right before midnight.

When the City Council approved the new ordinance, it stipulated that the police would not actively enforce this law. The guidelines clearly state that the enforcement will be “voluntary compliance.”

“Staff does not intend to assign police officers to the task of seeking out and ticketing individuals who are smoking in public places,” the ordinance says.

So why were the police at the Sandpiper? According to several police communications, including a special web page devoted to the issue, the police presence is educational.

“The ordinance is designed to be self-enforcing to obtain voluntary compliance through visible signage and community outreach materials,” the police said. “However, police personnel as well as any peace, fire, marine safety, or code enforcement officer will be asked to: maintain an awareness of the City's smoking regulations; warn and educate members of the public of the smoking prohibitions; and enforce as needed.”

This reminds me of tinted car windows.

You know how tinted car windows are illegal but the law is never enforced — until a police officer needs a reason to pull you over.

Already, people are being pulled over.

Throughout the weekend, according to the police log, people were approached because they were smoking.

In fact, at 6:55 a.m. on Friday, the first day of the ban, in the 300 block of Cliff Drive, a foot patrol officer said he was “out with one smoking. Subject advised about the new smoking rules in Laguna.”

Just minutes later in the same area, police were with three subjects who were smoking, resulting in a citation.

Throughout the weekend, police advised smokers to can it. Some of the warnings came as a result of residents calling the police.

Yes, that’s right, Lagunans are calling the police over smokers.

Early in life children like that are called tattletales. Later, they are narcs. Either way, they usually are resented.

Why? Because no one likes a rat.

Back at the Sandpiper, Harrell is beside himself. He testified to the City Council when they were deliberating this issue. He begged them to compromise and let bar patrons smoke after 9 p.m.

“Everyone thinks it’s just ridiculous,” he said. “If they could just do a simple thing, like after 9 o’clock. It’d be great if they could do that. Our town is built on tourism and every country in the world is smoking. So I don’t know what to do.”

It’s clear that the bars are unfairly impacted by the law. More to the point, cigarettes are legal so they deserve equal protection.

By contrast, restaurants and other businesses won’t experience the same problems.

“For us, it will have less impact than it would maybe some other places in town,” said Cary Redfearn, owner of the Lumberyard restaurant and a director on the Chamber of Commerce board. “We’re not the late-night kind of place. We get relatively few people who step outside in order to smoke.”

But for Harrell, it’s a completely different audience, and they are not going to change their behavior, especially when they believe it’s legal.

“They are just going to hide it,” he said. “We’re in the bar business. We’re just trying to make a living. So allow the people to drink and smoke and have some fun at night without having to panic and worry about getting a ticket.”

An obvious compromise is to allow bar patrons to smoke after a reasonable hour.

But that won’t solve the bigger problem that the law is simply overreaching.

I’ve seen the expressions on people’s faces — out-of-town tourists primarily — when they’re told that smoking is illegal in Laguna.

At first they can’t believe it. Then they just shake their heads and usually disparage Laguna in colorful political terms.

It’s never good or funny. It’s always just sad.

It’s a sad commentary on Laguna Beach, a place once known as being progressive and thoughtful, where laws were crafted with care and creativity.

Now, it’s something else entirely.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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