Republican lawmakers have revived an effort to roll back California's 6-month-old ban on smoking in bars, unveiling legislation that could face its first committee vote as early as Monday.
Organized labor and anti-smoking groups denounced the attempt, and some Democrats predicted that the effort would fail. However, the latest gambit means the fight over the smoking ban is likely to rage until the Legislature's session ends in August.
Sen. William "Pete" Knight (R-Palmdale) is carrying one of two bills to overturn the ban. His is sponsored by the tobacco industry-backed National Smokers Alliance. Senate Republican Leader Ross Johnson of Irvine is carrying another, more simply worded measure.
Just three months ago, similar legislation by Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood) stalled in a Senate committee. In addition, attempts to keep the ban from taking effect Jan. 1 failed last year.
While polls by The Times and others show strong public support for the bar and casino smoking ban, the Virginia-based National Smokers Alliance and many small bar owners remain intent on ending it. Tobacco industry lobbyists have been seeking support in the Legislature for its repeal.
In an attempt to generate support for Knight's measure (SB 1513), the National Smokers Alliance issued a letter to bar owners urging them to contact members of the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, which is scheduled to hear the bill Monday.
Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), a committee member, said Wednesday he intends to fight to have the bill referred to the less friendly Assembly Labor Committee, which he chairs.
"That bill will make it out of this Legislature when pigs can fly," Floyd said.
Sandy Harrison, spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), said that if Knight's bill wins approval in the Assembly, its chances of winning Senate approval are "not good."
"There would remain significant opposition to that bill in the Senate," Harrison said.
Both bills began as minor measures dealing with horse racing. On Tuesday, however, both Knight and Johnson amended their bills to allow smoking in bars and casinos.
Johnson's bill (SB 539) is brief, simply stating that patrons and bar workers would be permitted to smoke in ventilated break rooms separated from main barrooms.
Knight's more detailed legislation would allow bars and casinos to obtain special smoking licenses from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control at a cost of $50 to $100 a year. The measure says employees would have to agree to allow smoking, and that bars and casinos would be required to meet ventilation standards.
However, the ventilation standards, which don't yet exist, would be set by a commission on building standards rather than the state Department of Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for worker safety.
Ken August, a spokesman for the state Department of Health Services, said it would take a "ventilation system so strong that it would suck cocktail napkins right off the table" to remove all tobacco smoke from a bar.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Knight described his measure as a "common sense solution to a problem that has had such a negative effect on small businesses and their employees throughout the state."
But the California Labor Federation, which supports the ban, denounced the repeal effort.
"It is ludicrous to think that, in some instances, employees will not be coerced into agreeing to allow smoking," Tom Rankin, president of the labor group, said in a letter to legislators. "Death by cigarette smoke should not be a condition of employment."
Saying the tobacco industry "gets points for persistence," Alan Henderson, president of the California division of the American Cancer Society, accused Knight and the tobacco industry of trying "an end run around the normal legislative process in order to enact special interest legislation that will harm California workers" by amending the horse racing legislation to focus on bar smoking.
A spokesman for the National Smokers' Alliance denied that his organization is trying to short-circuit the legislative process.
"We are political realists," said Gary Auxier. "This was the opportunity and this was the piece of legislation that we are able to get before the Senate.
"Eventually the Senate is going to have to vote on this," he added. "I don't know how that is getting around the process."
California's smoking ban, the first in the nation, was contained in landmark 1994 legislation that prohibited smoking in almost all indoor workplaces as a worker safety measure.
It was approved after a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that secondhand tobacco smoke is a significant cause of cancer and other illnesses.
Times wire services contributed to this report.