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Smoke-Filled Saloons Are Facing Last Gasp Tonight

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An age-old custom will end Jan. 1: Smoking in bars will be illegal.

Some Ventura County bar employees--whose health the state law is designed to protect--say they look forward to smoke-free clothing and the chance to woo customers with a new drawing card: clean air.

But others bemoan the loss of a traditional barroom ambience and criticize the law as meddlesome.

“This law is destroying a piece of American culture,” said Hannah Adams, a bartender at the Red Cove Lounge in Ventura. “What would J.D. Salinger or Hunter S. Thompson do in a bar without cigarettes?”

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The ban is the latest phase of a 3-year-old law that prohibits smoking in enclosed workplaces. In 1994, the law banned smoking in most businesses, including restaurants, with an exemption for bars, nightclubs, casinos and hotel lobbies that ends today.

The intent is to protect employees, as well as customers, from the health effects of secondhand smoke. But many of those employees are critical of the law.

“The bottom line is that the individual restaurant owner should be able to decide,” said Tom Sullins, a bartender for 26 years, now at Tony’s Steak and Seafood on East Thompson Boulevard in Ventura. “All bartenders care about is legal tender--nothing else.”

Adams at the Red Cove, a 47-year-old bar and pool joint on Main Street, said waitresses and bartenders who wish to avoid smoke can easily find work at nonsmoking establishments, and know the risks when they work in a smoking environment. She expressed concern for citizens’ rights.

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The ban “is chipping away at our rights and making us easier to control,” said Adams, a smoker. “Before you know it, they’ll say smoking at home is attempted murder on your kids.”

Red Cove customer Thomas Wise said he has little sympathy for bar employees.

“Every job has occupational hazards,” said Wise, 33. “I’m a marine mechanic, and I took the job knowing the risks.”

At the Alamo in Newbury Park, bartender and waitress Soroya Rizzie said she agrees with the restaurant smoking ban, but thinks bars should be exempt.

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“If smoking bothered me, this is not the job I would have,” said Rizzie. “This is smokers’ territory. . . . Where people come to drink, the majority of them smoke.”

Many patrons at local bars agreed with Rizzie. “Part of the relaxation after work is having a smoke and a drink,” said Sharri Ross, while puffing away at the Alamo. Ross, 42, who has smoked for 25 years, said she will go to bars less often because of the ban.

However, there also are bar customers, employees and managers who eagerly await smoke-free saloons.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Michelle Brutaco, a nonsmoking waitress at Cisco’s Mexican restaurant in Westlake Village. “I’m not worried about losing tips. People won’t go away. We have longtime customers.”

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Brutaco said the best thing about the ban is that she will no longer have to peel off smoky clothes every morning before going to bed.

Some lounge managers are trying to use the new law to their advantage. Charles Bayer, manager at Capistrano’s in Oxnard, said the bar took part in a nonsmoking night sponsored by the American Lung Assn. in early December, to appeal to nonsmoking patrons.

“We’re looking at getting back the customers who decided long ago that they couldn’t handle the smoke,” Bayer said.

A few local watering holes have a patio or deck where they will be able to send those in need of a nicotine fix without violating the law.

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“We’re lucky because we can just fix up the patio area and put some tables and chairs out there,” said Kazan Schmidt, manager of the Sans Souci Cocktail Lounge on Chestnut Street in Ventura. “But we will comply with the law.”

How the law will be enforced is still unclear. The law directs local authorities to designate an agency in each city or county to oversee the new rules. It names the police, sheriff’s department or environmental health department as potential enforcement agencies.

Although fines of up to $7,000 may be levied on repeat violators, officials at most city and county agencies said they do not have a new inspection or enforcement plan to deal with the impending law.

“I’m sure we will be enforcing it because we have been doing it for restaurants, but I have not received any information on it,” said Ventura Code Enforcement Officer Sherry Jeffreys. She also said she is limited in her ability to enforce the law.

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“Someone has to call me and complain and then co-sign the citation because we have to have an eyewitness, so it’s hard to enforce, " Jeffreys said.

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Correspondents Lisa Fernandez and Kimberly Lisagor contributed to this story.


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