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Santa Monica Tries to Clear the Air on Smoking in Eateries

Times Staff Writer

The first time around, public health advocates say, they were caught off guard. Restaurateurs descended on City Hall, loudly protested a proposed no-smoking law and watched happily as Santa Monica leaders voted it down.

This time, things may be different.

When the Santa Monica City Council meets Tuesday to consider a watered-down no-smoking ordinance for the city’s restaurants, Dr. Harvey Frey will be there.

And, Frey hopes, so will enough recovering smokers, people with lung disease and cancer specialists to influence the City Council.

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Frey, a retired radiation therapist who lives in Santa Monica, has called the pulmonary units of local hospitals and some of the clinics that help people quit smoking to drum up supporters. He also went through the phone book, inviting heart and lung specialists to be at Tuesday’s meeting.

Trendy Eateries

“The last time, they (council members) got most of their noise from the restaurateurs,” Frey said. “We figure we’ll try to let them know they have more breathers than restaurateurs in Santa Monica.”

But Santa Monica, as home to some of the trendiest eateries on the Westside, does have quite a few high-profile and influential restaurateurs. And they, too, plan to be heard.

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Gerald Breitbart, a spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn., said restaurant owners should be allowed to voluntarily designate non-smoking areas.

“There isn’t a whole lot of smoking in restaurants these days. You just don’t see it,” Breitbart said. “Trying to set aside additional areas makes it more difficult for the owner to operate.”

It was Breitbart who on Jan. 12 successfully led the challenge to a tough no-smoking ordinance that the City Council was reviewing. The law would have required all restaurants in the city to set aside 70% of their seats for non-smokers, a provision that made the regulation more stringent than similar laws passed in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

After hearing from Breitbart, restaurateurs and public health advocates, the council voted 6 to 1 to send the law back to attorneys to be rewritten, incorporating numerous exemptions and changes that generally weakened the law.

Proposition 65

The new version goes before the council on Tuesday, in a meeting that begins at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall. But, in an unusual move, city attorneys are also resubmitting the stronger, original version.

“Our feeling is that the evidence out there (on the hazards of smoking) is enough to warrant” a tough ordinance, said Deputy City Atty. Laurie Lieberman, who wrote both laws. She pointed out that in April, a state advisory panel listed tobacco smoke as a substance known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, which means warning requirements set forth in Proposition 65 will soon apply to tobacco smoke.

Following council recommendations made in the Jan. 12 meeting, the new version reduces the area that would be set aside as non-smoking from 70% to 50%. It exempts bars and banquet rooms.

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It also exempts restaurants with fewer than 50 seats. According to a staff report, that would exempt 38% of the restaurants in the city. The report recommended that the cutoff point be lower than 50, to include more restaurants within the regulation.

Smokers Usually Cooperate

Jay Fiondella, who for 30 years has run the 46-seat Chez Jay restaurant on Ocean Avenue, had pleaded before the council in January for the small-restaurant exemption.

“It would put us out of business if small restaurants have to” set aside no-smoking sections, Fiondella said last week. In his place, he said, smokers usually cooperate and move when asked to do so by a non-smoker.

“It’s been so pounded in their heads by the airlines and people who don’t smoke that the smokers seem to be cooperating. They’re resigned to it,” Fiondella said.

The law would also require new restaurants to install air-purifying systems, such as filters, ventilation systems or air curtains that blow smoke away from non-smokers, once the City Council has adopted engineering and mechanical standards for those systems.

Council members had also asked the staff to study the possibility of “rolling sections” that would allow restaurant operators to set aside a small number of tables that would be either non-smoking or smoking, depending on the number of smoking and non-smoking clients on a given night.

But the staff recommended against rolling sections, saying they would confuse patrons about where non-smoking tables are located and would make it difficult for authorities to enforce the law.

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Breitbart said he supported the idea of rolling sections.

“A restaurant has a problem: (There is) a limited number seats that the operator has to fill according to the demand of the customers. If there are more non-smokers, he’ll provide that; if it’s reversed, he’ll do the reverse. It’s public demand that will essentially drive the restaurant.”

Dr. William McCarthy, chairman of the Public Issues Committee of an area chapter of the American Cancer Society, said the weaker version of the law was better than nothing, but he preferred the stronger restrictions.

McCarthy spoke to the council in January to support the original law. But he said then he had not lobbied vigorously enough because he had expected a progressive city like Santa Monica to pass the law easily.

This time, he said, he was coordinating with Frey and others to produce a larger and more vocal turnout for Tuesday’s meeting.

“Who is it the council is trying to protect by adopting the watered-down version?” McCarthy said.

“I have to ask why has it taken so long, given that many other cities, not as progressive as Santa Monica is purported to be, have long ago moved to protect their citizenry from smoking in restaurants, while Santa Monica hasn’t.”

City Councilman Alan Katz said last week he planned to fight to restore some of the proposed law’s original teeth.

“No one expected Santa Monica, which expends so much energy on protecting the health of its citizens, to drop the ball on this one,” Katz said. “We could do so much better (than the weaker law) and have an obligation to do so.”

But Councilwoman Christine Reed said city attorneys “went overboard” when they wrote the law the first time. The newer version, she said, is more reasonable because it grants restaurant owners the flexibility they need.

Reed said she hoped other council members would not try to reverse the January decision, adding that restaurants are crucial to the city’s tourism industry.

“Having a healthy restaurant sector, a happy restaurant sector, that is not tied down by all kinds of weird regulations, enhances our position as a visitor-serving (city),” Reed said. Restaurants “are a valuable part of beefing up our tourism image.”

Santa Monica in 1984 approved a comprehensive law banning smoking in many public places, including grocery stores, movie houses, elevators and public restrooms. Restaurants lobbied successfully at the time to be excluded by pledging to voluntarily set up no-smoking sections, install better ventilation or take other measures.

In January, the city attorney’s office, through an informal telephone survey, found that about 26% of Santa Monica’s restaurants have voluntarily created non-smoking sections.


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