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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Smoke Clears Over Ban on Lighting Up : San Luis Obispo ordinance prohibits smoking in indoor public places. Residents are abiding by--and liking--the law.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The smoker stood in the doorway of the bar at Brubeck’s, torn between two desires.

In one hand, he held his drink, which he kept carefully indoors. In his other he held a cigarette, which, just as carefully, he kept outside. Turning his head from one to the other, he could indulge in both habits and stay within the law.

Such is the plight of smokers in San Luis Obispo, where drinking and smoking do not mix--at least in bars.

This small, college community is the only city in the nation--some say the world--that prohibits smoking in bars. For nearly two years, San Luis Obispo has banned smoking in all indoor public places, including restaurants, stores, theaters and the bowling alley.

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Despite grumbling from many smokers, the ban has gained widespread acceptance in town, even from some bar owners who at first adamantly opposed it.

“I think it’s here to stay,” said Peter Brubeck, the owner of Brubeck’s who took to the airwaves two years ago to fight the law. “We could repeal it tomorrow and I’m not going to allow smoking in here.”

In some respects, San Luis Obispo can afford to be a trendsetter.

Nestled in a valley about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the coastal city of 42,000 is far removed from the urban pressures facing much of California.

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Outside town, the city’s businesses have little competition. The closest community of any size is Shell Beach, nine miles to the south. Morro Bay is 13 miles to the northwest.

Unlike Beverly Hills, which made an ill-fated attempt to ban smoking in restaurants, it is not so easy for smokers in San Luis Obispo to find alternatives.

“If you don’t like it, what are you going to do, jump in your car and drive 10 miles to the next town for lunch?” asked Doug Longfellow, manager of Hudson’s Grill, a bar and restaurant.

Statistically speaking, the city’s population also is less inclined to smoke: San Luis Obispo has a large student population, generally higher levels of education and little racial diversity. Predominantly white, the city is 1.9% black, 5.5% Asian and 9.4% Latino.

With its semirural nature, the city’s nickname, SLO, seems a fitting one. Traffic, people--even time itself--all seem to move more slowly in this laid-back community. Perhaps because of that easygoing nature, most smokers have not fought the law.

“A few hard-core smokers complain,” said Sid West, a bartender at Bull’s Tavern. “But people around here are friendly. They’re not uptight people.”

Outside Bull’s Tavern one recent afternoon, the bartender and all seven of his customers took turns standing on the sidewalk to smoke.

“You feel like you’re in high school, ducking the principal,” said Bob White, a cook in a local restaurant. A woman, who asked not to be identified, agreed: “We think it’s a pain in the butt.”

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For the most part, enforcement is left up to the customers, with occasional inspections by police who tend to issue warnings rather than citations.

At most bars, city officials say, patrons dutifully step outside to smoke. The city has issued only seven citations since the law took effect in 1990.

A court challenge to one of those tickets narrowed the liability of bartenders, who can be cited only if they serve customers who are smoking at the time.

At two or three of the rowdier bars, however, the law is widely flouted.

At Signatures, the bartender did nothing to stop half a dozen customers from smoking at the bar--but quickly enforced a policy prohibiting reporters from interviewing anyone about the smoking law.

Similarly, at the noisy Mustang Tavern, the law was loosely enforced. “If it’s a city ordinance,” the bartender asked, “why do they expect me to enforce it?”

The smoking ban hit hardest at McCarthy’s cocktail lounge, an old Irish bar that has long been a social club for seniors on fixed incomes who live downtown.

Once packed during the daytime, the crowds have dwindled. Customers now leave after one or two drinks instead of staying for hours, complains manager JoAnn Johnson, who blames much of the decline on the smoking ban.

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“It seems odd that an 80-year-old man has to stand outside to have a cigarette,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the city’s right to tell people how to run their businesses. If you want to be healthy, what are you doing in a bar anyway, because booze isn’t any healthier.”

Most bar owners say business has declined over the last two years, but they agree that it is hard to say how much is because of the smoking ban, which took effect about the same time the economy plunged into recession.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Brubeck, a nephew of jazz musician Dave Brubeck. “People want drunks off the highways. They don’t want secondhand smoke.”

Among nonsmokers--and even some smokers--the law has gained significant support. “I personally love it,” said Gordon Rice, a bartender at Hudson’s Grill. “I don’t have people sitting blowing smoke in my face all night.”

One local poll taken soon after the law passed showed about 75% of the town favored it--including 38% of those who smoke, said Debbie Hossli, a city analyst who oversees enforcement of the law.

Bars and nightclubs, once blue with smoke, can now boast fresh air for drinking and dancing--and even draw customers from other towns.

“I was opposed to it,” said Elias Nimeh, owner of the popular nightspot Tortilla Flats and a former smoker. “But if they ever allowed us to have smoking again, I wouldn’t allow it here. . . . I love the rule now.”


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