Smokers Snuffed : San Luis Obispo Will Implement Nation’s Toughest Tobacco Law Today


For 29 years, McCarthy’s, a small downtown bar with a handful of stools beneath a scarred mahogany counter, has remained unchanged. The jukebox still features tunes by Patti Page, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo and the Ink Spots. Customers still file in for a liquid breakfast as early as 6 a.m., when the bar opens on weekends. And Joe McCarthy, 83, the owner, still greets customers until noon every day.

But today when the nation’s strictest non-smoking ordinance goes into effect in San Luis Obispo, McCarthy is going to have to change his operation for the first time. McCarthy, who always has been the sole arbiter of who gets a drink and “who gets the door,” now will have to follow the dictates of the city and refuse service to all smokers.

“Almost every customer I have smokes,” said McCarthy, gesturing toward the bar and then dropping his hand in disgust. “I tell some of these guys they can’t smoke, they’ll just find a bar in another city.”

Numerous cities have no-smoking ordinances, but San Luis Obispo’s is the nation’s “strictest and most comprehensive,” according to a spokesman for Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, a lobbying group based in Berkeley. It prohibits smoking in any indoor public area in San Luis Obispo, including all shops, restaurants and bars.


Most residents and store owners in San Luis Obispo support the smoking ban, authorities say. But in the bars--the one business traditionally immune from anti-smoking laws--owners, drinkers and bartenders are outraged.

Jerry Reiss, the city councilman who first proposed the ordinance in June, said, initially, he planned to exempt bars from the smoking ban. “But the more I thought about it the more I realized it made no sense . . . second-hand smoke is a health hazard whether it’s in a restaurant, a store, or a bar.”

The Environmental Protection Agency recently named second-hand smoke as a Class-A carcinogen, the EPA’s top category for cancer-causing agents. As a result, the majority of restaurant owners now support the ban because they don’t want to face workmen’s compensation claims from their employees, said Dennis Barney, president of the local restaurant association.

But in places like McCarthy’s, the holdouts remain.


On a sunny, summer morning, a steady stream of men left the glare of the parking lot, walked into McCarthy’s and experienced something akin to a full eclipse. The bar was extremely dark, lit only by a few dim overhead lights. A gauzy cumulous cloud of cigarette smoke drifted toward the ceiling. And lined up at the bar were a group of men hunched over their drinks, smoking furiously.

One recent morning, Joe (Scottie) Scott, a retired truck driver, sat at his customary spot--last stool on the right--sipped his bourbon and water and puffed on a cigar that smelled like diesel exhaust.

“Communists,” he muttered, when asked about the smoking ban. “That’s the kind of thing they have in Russia.”

Several others at the bar nodded in agreement. Because they spend their mornings at the bar, instead of poring over the newspaper with breakfast, most never heard of perestroika and were unaware that Russia is not the symbol for repression it used to be.


At a nearby table Joe McCarthy was asked about “second-hand smoke” and he shouted: “never heard of it,” and rolled his eyes in disgust.

“This is a clean, wholesome cocktail lounge,” said McCarthy, a former professional wrestler known as “Red Devil.” A grainy black and white picture of Red Devil, crouching, arms extended, is hung above the bar. “People can smoke a lot worse things than cigarettes.”

Many in the San Luis Obispo medical community, including the staffs of the two largest hospitals in the area, pushed for the smoking ban. Before the council approved the ordinance by a 4-1 vote at a meeting last June, Dr. David Lawrence, a pathologist, told city officials that in the last two days he had already diagnosed two lung cancer cases, caused by smoking.

“People say they have a right to smoke, and they do. . . . They can smoke in their homes all they want,” Lawrence said. “But they don’t have a right to smoke in a public place, force me to breath the fumes and endanger my health.”


People who smoke in public areas and business owners who allow smoking or serve smokers will be given a series of warnings, City Atty. Jeff Jorgensen said. But if they persist in violating the ordinance they will be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $500 for the third offense.

“People who see smoking going on can’t call 911 and get the cops on the scene,” Jorgensen said. “They can write a letter to the city and file a complaint. The only time you’d ever see a police response is in an extreme case, like if some guy stands in the middle of a room and screams: “I’m going to smoke and none of you can stop me.”

The tobacco industry was distressed by the prospect of a virtually smoke-free city. So right before the vote, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. flooded residents with flyers and urged them to “phone your council members” to oppose “this . . . outrageous attack on your rights!” And a public relations firm representing the tobacco industry called Mayor Ron Dunin, who voted against the ban, and offered to help defeat the ordinance. But, Dunin said, he told them “the issue should be handled locally.”

“Everytime you have to institute a change for public health reasons, some businesses are impacted,” said Dr. Stephen Hansen, chief of staff of a local hospital. “Around the turn of the century when people chewing tobacco were spreading tuberculosis, they passed laws outlawing spitting in spittoons. Spittoon and tobacco companies, I’m sure, tried to fight that too.”