In what it says is a significant change of heart and not a change in tactics, the California Restaurant Assn. declared Tuesday that it would support an outright, statewide smoking ban in restaurants--but only if smoking is also banned in all other public places.
The organization, representing owners of about 10,000 restaurants, said its decision is largely an acknowledgment of new data on the risks of secondhand smoke. Such a legislative ban could leapfrog local smoking regulations, like those in place in San Diego and many other California cities, as well as Los Angeles Councilman Marvin Braude’s proposal to ban restaurant smoking altogether.
At a press conference in the smoking section of a downtown restaurant, association officials disclosed that they are drafting legislation that would enact the smoking ban. They said it would be “premature” to define a public place, although a representative in Sacramento said it would include such spots as bowling alleys, sports arenas and theaters.
“Rather than point a finger to the workplace or to other environments where secondhand smoke far exceeds that in restaurants,” said incoming association President Ted Burke, “the restaurant industry . . . encourages a total ban on smoking in each and every public place in California, without exception or exclusion.”
The restaurant association is one of the most influential lobbies in Sacramento, its members representing everything from food contractors to haute cuisine. It has battled smoking regulations at all levels, urging voluntary changes on its members, many of whom have found nonsmoking sections to be profitable.
The California-based Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights lauded the “breakthrough” turnabout in the position of the restaurant owners, but in the next breath said it was doomed by the cigarette industry’s leverage in the Legislature.
“We’re very pleased the restaurant association now recognizes that secondhand smoke is a public health problem,” said Julia Carol, associate director of the anti-smoking group. She predicted that a total ban would not come about because the Legislature is “in the hip pocket” of tobacco interests.
In San Diego County, officials said they want the cities to beef up their current anti-smoking laws. But so far they say no city has matched the county’s ordinance for unincorporated areas that requires at least 50 percent of the seating to be reserved for nonsmokers in restaurants.
“Everyone else has vague language,” said Jane Young, chief of public health education for San Diego County. Young said that she knows of no city ordinance in San Diego County that has designated a percentage of seats for nonsmokers in restaurants.
San Diego requires restaurants that seat more than 20 people to set aside a sufficient number of nonsmoking seats to meet demand. Del Mar has a similar ordinance.
The county ordinance also bans smoking in all county buildings in unincorporated areas and says that employers must ban smoking in all shared work areas. The less stringent San Diego city ordinance says that smoking and nonsmoking workers must be separated. But with wording like this it means that smokers could be on one side of a room and nonsmokers on the other side, Young said.
Linda Jo Thompson, the restaurant association’s senior director of government affairs and general counsel, said she has finished the first draft of the bill, which could not be introduced in the Legislature before January. Beyond prohibiting smoking in eating and drinking places, the proposal would ban smoking in “every public place, including bowling alleys, sports arenas, theaters,” she said. It would not apply, for instance, to an employee cafeteria at a privately owned plant, she said.
“We are fairly certain that our proposal is going to get a lot of pummeling. We have been pummeled before. We’ll just have to take what comes,” Thompson said.
She said the association is looking for a legislator who will carry the bill. It is certain to draw the attention of a large number of legislative combatants ranging from local governments to the tobacco lobby, health and medical interests, and restaurant and bar owners.
Braude and the nonsmoking group are concerned that the legislation might pose a risk to smoking regulations already in place. One fear is that the legislation would be so sweeping in defining “public” that the Legislature would back away from it. Alternatively, they worry that any watered down compromise would impose less than rigorous standards statewide, possibly cutting off at the knees more stringent local measures.
Legislation that would enact a smoking ban “is not going to hurt us at all,” said Carol, of the anti-smoking group. “The only thing that would hurt us is a state law with preemption (of more rigorous local standards) in it, and we’d fight that tooth and nail, and it wouldn’t pass.”
The restaurant association’s executive vice president, Stan Kyker, dismissed local restrictions as “piecemeal” and confusing. “If secondhand smoke is a health hazard, then it is a health hazard for employees as well as customers, and it is a health hazard in all types of establishments in all parts of the states,” he said.
Association officials said the about-face, which came on a 90-0 vote at the June meeting of its board of directors, was not a direct response to Braude’s May 29 proposal for a total restaurant smoking ban, the toughest in any major U.S. city.
It is a reaction “only to the degree that Los Angeles becomes part of that patchwork quilt (of regulations) that is beginning to develop all over the state,” said Kyker. “To say that it had absolutely nothing to do with it would be shortsighted, but to say that it is a response to it is also clearly too simplistic.”
Throughout the country, local government agencies have sometimes been more vigorous in legislating matters from gun control to fireworks and smoking issues. In part, it is because lobbying money and special-interest leverage are often more effectively employed at the state level.
The restaurant association opposed piecemeal legislation as creating unfair competition between restaurants in neighboring cities. Kyker said it also would be against any state legislation banning smoking in restaurants alone, without including other public places.
“Our board believes it is not a rights, moral or ethical issue,” Thompson said. “It is simply a health issue. We feel beyond a reasonable doubt that secondhand smoke is a real health problem, especially for employees.”
“In the past, and up until this year, we have understood the smoking controversy to be a rights or moral issue that we felt we didn’t have any business making any judgments about,” she said. “Our board was not pro- or anti-smoking. They just wanted to accommodate those who wanted to eat at the restaurant or drink at the bar. They wanted people to be happy.”
Thompson said the reversal also came in the wake of passage of the anti-toxics Proposition 65 in 1986, which, among other things, required the posting of signs where food is served warning of the hazards to health of smoking.
“Our board looked at that and they felt this was the beginning of their acknowledgment that maybe there is something to the scientific studies that secondhand smoke is dangerous,” she said.
Contributing to this report was staff writer Carl Ingram in Sacramento