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Dine-Out Smoking Ban Within Reach : And Grass-Roots Action Could Spread It Statewide

Where should public officials draw the line when it comes to banning smoking in public places to protect public health? Should it be in restaurants, as the general approach now seems to be, or in all public places?

If bans are considered in restaurants, should there be some arbitrary limit, such as setting aside 40% or 50% of the tables for nonsmokers? Or should it be an all-or-nothing proposition--either banning smoking entirely or leaving it up to each establishment to decide?

Public officials have been unsuccessfully wrestling with that issue for years. Laguna Beach, currently reserving 60% of restaurant seating for nonsmokers, already has one of the strictest ordinances in Orange County. It has tentatively approved changing that to 100% nonsmoking, which would be one of the strictest smoking bans in Southern California.

The ordinance would allow smoking in establishments where bars and patios are separate from the restaurants. But many popular places in Laguna Beach, as a point of fact, are not set up to accommodate those separate areas, either because of size or layout.

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The adverse reaction that the proposal has received from restaurateurs in the coastal resort community is understandable; they say they would not object if neighboring communities had the same ban. But without such uniformity, diners may be lost to nearby cities that set aside fewer nonsmoking tables, or none at all. In these recessionary times, they can’t afford that.

From an economic viewpoint, the protesting business community is correct. But the Laguna Beach council members supporting a strong ban against the passive, “secondhand smoke” that nonsmokers are involuntarily forced to inhale, are coming down on the side of public health.

Health studies have identified secondhand smoke as one of the leading causes of preventable deaths. Smoking-ban proponents acknowledge the potential loss of some customers but believe that today’s social pressures against smoking, and the fact that most adults are nonsmokers, will make any negative economic impact much less than feared.

Outlawing smoking in all public places doesn’t appear possible from either a political or practical approach. But a smoking ban for restaurants is within reach.

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Ideally, that prohibition should be statewide. The Legislature, however, hasn’t shown the backbone to stand up to the tobacco lobby and pass that needed, broad-based law. So there is no uniform approach. And as a practical political matter, one can’t be expected easily. Smoking bans in restaurants in Northern California are relatively common. In Southern California, they are rare.

Sometimes, the place to start is at the grass-roots level. If cities and counties begin addressing the serious health issues of passive smoke, then, perhaps, the Legislature will no longer be able to keep ignoring it.

Instead of scattered municipal approaches ranging from advisory (as in Fullerton) to outright bans, the Orange County division of the League of California Cities should seek a coordinated, countywide approach against passive smoke--and urge similar action from the statewide organization.

Even if that doesn’t snuff out the smoking lamp statewide, it could lead to more uniformity--and save some lives.

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In the meantime, Laguna Beach should lobby the Orange County League of Cities for a uniform ordinance that would cover all communities and help protect both the diner’s health and the restaurant owner’s economic health.


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