Gov. Pete Wilson lent a sympathetic ear Saturday to bar owners angered by a month-old ban on smoking in their establishments, but he stopped short of favoring a bid to repeal the prohibition.
Wilson, whose administration has prided itself on making California more business friendly, suggested that he supports establishing refuges for bar smokers.
"For those who want to smoke, there should be clearly delineated smoking bars or within a bar some sort of sanctuary that permits them to do it," the governor said in a brief interview.
An infrequent cigar smoker, Wilson said he favors "some middle way" that would fully protect nonsmokers and tavern employees from secondhand smoke but still allow those who are "determined" to light up in a bar the right to do so.
"It seems to me that adults should be able to make a decision about their own behavior as long as they aren't inflicting secondhand smoke on someone else," said Wilson, adding that his administration has sought to discourage smoking, especially among young people.
In 1994, the governor, in a triumph for foes of smoking, signed the statewide prohibition on smoking in most workplaces.
Until Jan. 1, bars, nightclubs and casinos were virtually the only businesses left in California where people could light up legally.
Now, however, Wilson appears to be softening his stance, caught in a cross-fire between bar operators urging him to support lifting the ban and public health groups fighting to preserve it.
The contentious issue resurfaced Wednesday when Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood) brought up his bill to lift the ban and it narrowly won passage. The measure will now be considered by the Senate.
The bill has rekindled legislative wrangling over smoking, even though it faces an uphill struggle in the upper house.
Wilson said he has not taken a position on efforts by Vincent to repeal the ban on smoking in bars.
Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary, amplified by saying that Vincent's "bill still needs to go through policy committees" and that to take a stand now "would be premature."
John Burton (D-San Francisco), the incoming state Senate leader, said last week that the Vincent bill may be referred to two panels: the Judiciary Committee and Health and Human Services Committee. Both have been unfriendly to smoking interests.
Burton, a former bartender who used to smoke and drink, said he personally opposes the Vincent measure.
"It's a worker safety issue: Smoking is putting poison into the lungs and bodies of people who work for a living," he said.
Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the health committee and a smoking foe, said her panel would look at Vincent's measure "as a threat to the health and safety of Californians. We'll do all we can to see that this bill doesn't come out of committee."
Under the 1994 law, bars and card clubs were given a reprieve to allow federal occupational health officials time to devise safe ventilation standards that the establishments could use to clear the air of tobacco.
Walsh said it was the administration's hope when the governor signed the law that "we would be able to establish ventilation standards or some acceptable alternative to allow both smokers and nonsmokers the ability to relax outside the household."
Anti-smoking advocates were disappointed by Wilson's current position.
On Saturday, Paul Knepprath, a lobbyist for the American Lung Assn. of California, said: "Obviously, we'd like the governor to say unequivocally he won't sign this [Vincent bill] and signal to Californians it's time to obey the law."
Knepprath said the state needs to provide "a safe haven" for workers to prevent them from being exposed to dangerous "cancer-causing secondhand smoke."
In the coming week, he said, health groups plan to renew their opposition to any revisions in the law. "We're obviously not taking anything for granted," he said.
Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.