One month after the California Restaurant Assn. announced it would support a ban on smoking in all public places, the owners of more than 100 Los Angeles eateries--including such celebrated spots as Spago, Ma Maison, Citrus and others--have combined forces to oppose a proposed citywide ban on smoking in all restaurants.
The group, which calls itself RSVP--Restaurants for Sensible Voluntary Policy--said it is not breaking from the statewide organization. But like the state group, RSVP members contend that the proposed Los Angeles ordinance is unfair because it limits the ban to restaurants while allowing smoking in other establishments open to the public, such as sports arenas, saloons and bowling alleys.
If adopted, the ordinance by City Councilman Marvin Braude would be the most restrictive anti-smoking law in a major city. Existing city law requires separate sections for smoking and nonsmoking patrons in restaurants.
"We basically feel we're being singled out," said Ron Salisbury, owner of El Cholo and three other Los Angeles-area eateries. "If smoking is bad, which we truly believe that it is, why should one part of the business be singled out?"
Stricter laws regarding smoking are probably inevitable, Salisbury said, because of growing concern over so-called "second-hand smoke," which has been classified as a leading carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Among other concerns, restaurateurs are wary of potential workmen's compensation claims due to exposure to tobacco smoke, some owners said.
"It's a trend, definitely," Salisbury said. "We want to make a proper progression towards that, and an orderly progression. It has to be balanced. You want businesses around because they provide jobs."
The membership of RSVP consists of many of Los Angeles' best-known, toniest restaurants, including Musso & Frank Grill, Jimmy's, City, La Toque, Patina, Rebecca's, the Hard Rock Cafe, the Bistro Garden, Champagne, West Beach, Emilio's, Tribeca, Yamashiro and Hamburger Hamlet.
When the state restaurant group, which represents about 10,000 eating establishments, announced its advocacy of a broader smoking ban last month, it represented a major change of perspective. Braude, himself a former smoker, said he was gratified that the group recognized the hazards of second-hand smoke, but also saw advocacy of statewide legislation as a tactic to delay and thwart local control.
Braude, who began his crusade with an ordinance banning smoking on elevators, and other anti-tobacco activists would support such legislation. "But until it happens," Braude aide Glen Barr said, "we're not giving up the fight."
State legislation is more practical, said Seth Jacobsen, a spokesman for RSVP. "The issue is, do we fight this city by city, ordinance by ordinance?" he said.
The immediate concern, said RSVP members, is that diners who smoke may simply patronize restaurants in other cities. A similar ordinance enacted in Beverly Hills in 1987 was diluted after only 2 1/2 months, in part because restaurant receipts dwindled.
"A lot of restaurants have a deep concern whether they'll be able to stay in business," Salisbury said of the proposed Los Angeles ordinance. "If it's fair, it's fair, and it should go across the board."
Jacobsen said petitions are being circulated in restaurants in anticipation of a key public hearing Aug. 13 at City Hall. The ordinance will be aired in a joint meeting of the City Council's Environmental Quality Committee, chaired by Braude, and the Arts, Health and Humanities Committee, chaired by Councilman Joel Wachs.
Whether the City Council will approve Braude's ordinance is unclear, representatives of both sides say.
"We really haven't done nose-counting at this point," said Barr. "But we're optimistic because the trend (against smoking) seems to be happening. The mail is running strongly in favor of doing it."
Barr said he saw no significance in the opposition of some of the city's top restaurants.
"It's just a different kind of restaurant catering to a different kind of clientele," Barr said. "But everybody's lungs are the same."