A powerful state senator sent a strong signal Wednesday that an attempt to lift California's ban on smoking in bars and casinos has failed and the prohibition will stand.
Argument has raged for months over the few public places left where indoor smoking is allowed; Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) appeared to end the prospects for passage of a bill to repeal the ban.
Watson said the bill's author, Assemblyman Edward Vincent (D-Inglewood) had his chance to receive consideration for the measure before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, which she chairs. He lost that opportunity by boycotting Wednesday's hearing, she said at the conclusion of the session.
"I think we've had the hearing," Watson said. "We don't need to bring it up again. I think the author needs to get over it and get on with his life."
Vincent had vowed not to show up Wednesday, saying, "Everyone has their mind made up" to kill the bill, which passed the state Assembly in January. The Senate committee could not take a vote without Vincent there to present the bill, and Watson said it would "remain with the committee," thus halting its progress.
Watson presided over the panel as it heard familiar arguments for and against revoking the smoking ban that took effect Jan. 1 in bars, card rooms and bingo parlors.
Bartenders and others complained of business losses because of the ban, but Watson left no doubt about her own sentiments.
Backers of the Vincent bill, she said, "are asking this committee to reverse a very popular legislative statute," approved by voters in 1994 and supported today, she said, by "three-quarters of the public."
She wanted a showdown on the Vincent measure, she said, because its supporters are "undermining the implementation of this public health law" and urging noncompliance by bartenders statewide.
Since controversy erupted over the ban, the tobacco industry-backed National Smokers Alliance and public relations firms including industry giant Burson-Marsteller have been identified as backers of the bartenders, who have united by the hundreds to bombard the media with complaints.
Anti-tobacco groups have shot back with full-page newspaper ads blasting attempts to repeal the ban. They contend that just as scare talk of lost business for restaurants proved unfounded three years ago when an initial ban was instituted, most bars are doing just fine as smoke-free establishments.
Each side accused the other of spreading false data.
To loud gallery applause, Anaheim bartender John Johnson, president of a group called Americans for Individual Rights, said he is "very upset about this law."
Noting that health groups point to the dangers of secondhand smoke for barroom employees, Johnson said most employees themselves smoke. "If they all smoke, who are you protecting?" he asked.
But Tom Rankin, president of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO--a longtime opponent of workplace smoking--said employees are seldom consulted on smoking policy.
"We believe disease and death should not be a condition of employment," Rankin said, drawing applause.
Health advocacy groups cite studies that say 7,000 Californians a year die from secondhand smoke.