Snuffed Out

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sitting on a bar stool at her local pub with a Guinness in one hand and an extra-long Capri Menthol in the other, Danielle Carter is the embodiment of what many Los Angeles County bar-goers say is an obvious truth: Drinking and smoking just go together.

But come Jan. 1, a 3-year-old state law designed to protect the health of employees by banning smoking in the workplace will finally extend to bars, nightclubs, casinos and hotel lobbies.

Temporary exceptions were made for these establishments when the law was written in 1994, but now--barring success of eleventh-hour legislative moves--the air in California bars should be considerably clearer next New Year's Day.

And the bar stools may be emptier.

"I'm thinking, 'God, I can't believe they're going to do this to me, I'm gonna have to move to Arizona to smoke,' " said Carter, 24, a medical transcriptionist who spent Thursday night at O'Brien's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Santa Monica. "I'd be jonesing for a cigarette all the time."

For patrons like Carter, trying to separate puffing from quaffing is like trying to remove scandal from politics, hype from advertising or cholesterol from butter.

"A bar is a bar. If I can't smoke, why bother? I'll probably never go to a bar again. Absolutely not," said Elaine Munro, 35, puffing on a cigarette between sips of a screwdriver at Casey's Tavern in Canoga Park. "People who don't smoke shouldn't go in bars."

And plenty of nonsmokers side with their nicotine-loving bar brethren, acknowledging that if they frequent a bar, they know what they are in for.

"At a place like this I don't care if people smoke," said John Moralez, the only noticeable nonsmoker at the Candy Cat One in Chatsworth last Wednesday evening. "At a restaurant it's different. But if you go to a bar you have to expect that. Almost everybody smokes."

The 1994 law, which banned most workplace smoking and forced smokers to cluster on the sidewalks outside their offices, was passed to protect workers from the dangers of secondhand fumes. Bars originally had until January 1997 to conform, but were granted another year's clemency by the state Legislature, which hoped that state or federal health officials would develop safety standards for tobacco smoke in enclosed areas in the interim.

Many bar patrons think the workplace safety argument is another ruse to extinguish smokers' freedoms.

"They try to regulate what people do too much," said Joe De Santos, a Candy Cat One patron and casual cigar smoker. "It's one more little control they are imposing on you. Today it's not smoking. Tomorrow I may not be able to wear my kind of shirt or my kind of shoe."

Legislation to delay the ban again had been considered dead until Thursday, when Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood) used a parliamentary procedure to amend an otherwise minor Senate bill dealing with horse racing. The amendment would delay the smoking ban for at least three years in bars, casinos and horse racing tracks.

Vincent insists that a smoking ban would force bar owners out of business and also hurt Hollywood Park, which is in his district, and other major gambling establishments.

Even if the bill wins final Assembly approval, it must return to the state Senate. And Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), the most powerful lawmaker in Sacramento, vowed that if the measure reaches the Senate, "It will die."

Lockyer noted that the Legislature already has granted two exemptions for bars. And the air quality standards that would allow for smoking in complying bars won't be established any time soon, largely because the tobacco industry fights any effort to set them, he said.

"I'm not for further phony exemptions," Lockyer said.

Wednesday night, 20 men smoked and drank in near-silence, staring intently at a large-screen television in the Los Gallos bar on Central Avenue near 62nd Street in Southeast Los Angeles. The Chivas of Guadalajara were playing soccer against the Monterrey Tigers and conversation was mostly limited to cheers.

"I think it's stupid," said Candelario Franco, an unemployed construction worker. "Almost everybody here smokes. What is going to happen is that people are going to go outside and smoke. And it's not like going outside in Beverly Hills for a cigar. It's dangerous outside around here. At least inside it is safe."

It's possible, of course, that the smokers who decide to stay home will be replaced by legions of nonsmokers, who will swarm to their local taverns and nightspots once the smoke clears. People who, like Lynn Kerew of Santa Monica, think twice about going to a dance club if they think they'll come home smelling like smoke, with a pile of clothes to take to the cleaners.

"I would be more open to going to places with dancing and entertainment when there was no smoking," said Kerew, getting lunch to go from the Red Setter, a Santa Monica bar.

You can't sell that notion to bar managers, who are convinced that the ban will result in a loss of customers and revenue and will crowd their sidewalks with people craving a smoke.

Lance Parker, owner of the Family Room, a lounge in South Los Angeles near the Athens Park district, predicted he would lose 50% of his business if smoking is outlawed.

With the days until January hurtling by and the threat of fines looming, bar employees still seem to be in denial about the fact that having a cigarette over a strong one at the corner tavern may soon be against the law.

As he filled plastic jugs full of mai-tai ingredients, Formosa Cafe bartender Michael Childers noted that he had heard nothing about the ban from the management of the West Hollywood landmark.

"It's going to hurt business, without a doubt," he said, readying glasses for the evening. But I don't think it's going to happen. I think they're going to stop it."

Nevertheless, the Formosa is in the process of adding a patio where smokers can congregate outdoors, just in case.

"Cops have so much to do in this city," said Angela Hanlon, owner of Molly Malone's in the Miracle Mile district. "What if I'm calling up the police every half-hour to say, 'Officer, someone's smoking and he won't get out?' No, I can't see it."

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Some bar owners predicted that violent reactions from customers told to stop smoking will endanger employees' health more than secondhand smoke. Nonetheless, Red Setter bartender Gregg Shay, a nonsmoker, said if business wouldn't suffer he would be quite happy to breathe a little less smoke.

"It could be killing me, I don't know. To be honest, there have been nights I go home and my lungs feel like I have inhaled cigarettes. St. Patrick's Day it was packed in here. My lungs hurt for two days."

So, just what's so alluring about combining booze and nicotine?

Sitting on a stool at the Redwood Saloon downtown, sipping a glass of a Chilean merlot, puffing on a Marlboro Red, Lee Fletcher tried to explain.

"It's not that a cigarette makes you feel good, it's just that it keeps you from feeling bad, like if you have anxiety," said Fletcher, a civil rights attorney, who added he would not drink at a bar if he couldn't smoke. "And with alcohol, well, the two just compliment each other. One is not good without the other.

"It's like having a salad without the dressing."

Times staff writers Jose Cardenas and Dan Morain contributed to this story.

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